Food For Thought: Bánh Mì

The reclamation origin story of your favourite Vietnamese sandwich

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Photo of a bánh mì sandwich on a sheet of parchment paper and a paper bag beneath it.
bánh mì’s history. Photo courtesy of Amy Tran on Unsplash.

By: Michael Le, SFU Student

Being Vietnamese, I grew up eating bánh mì. I still have very fond memories of visiting Ba Le with my mom as a child. My favourite sandwich was the cold cut which included pâté, head cheese (which doesn’t actually have any cheese at all despite the name), chả lụa (boiled pork meatloaf), and assorted sliced ham. It just so happens that this is also the most classic recipe and style of bánh mì. Being that they are flavourful, filling, and cheaper than a Subway footlong, I would argue they are the perfect food — especially for students. But did you ever stop to think about where this perfect sandwich came from?

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the bánh mì is the baguette. In fact, the Vietnamese word bánh mì literally translates to “bread” and sure enough, the “bread,” or baguette, is not native to Vietnam. The baguette was brought to Vietnam during 19th century French colonization. However, the Vietnamese locals didn’t have access to baguettes: transporting them was expensive and thus this bread was reserved for the French. They were treated as luxury goods. Over time, bread became increasingly accessible to the general public as more staple ingredients like flour were imported to Vietnam to cater to European needs.

In the same spirit of catering to the French, charcuterie, which we now know now as the cold cuts, was added to the sandwich. Still regarded as a luxury item even after the French left Vietnam in 1954, the Vietnamese population continued to have cravings for the cold cuts bánh mì. Because many of the French traditional cured meats were not available in Vietnam, the locals improvised with what they had — mostly pork and pork scraps —  to make cold cuts, pâté (also originated from France), and head cheese.

Having learned about the sandwich’s history from my mom and being exposed to so many bánh mì places here in Vancouver, the sandwich always reminds me that there are history lessons behind food. Reflecting on bánh mì’s history makes me think of how far ours has gone — it wasn’t supposed to be Vietnamese, we made it so. It was brought over to Vietnam only to appease and satisfy the colonizers, but now, the bánh mì fillings we know are inexpensive and available to the masses. Albeit being a bittersweet journey to this savoury food, I realized that claiming our version of a sandwich meant exclusively for the colonizers is synonymous with the claiming of our independence. In my eyes, this simple reclaiming of food was essential to the renouncement of the colonizers’ power.

The struggles from the French colonization of Vietnam helped this classic recipe evolve into, arguably, the perfect sandwich. If you’re in the mood for one, I recommend checking out Pho 99 at Cornerstone Mews on Burnaby Campus, or my personal favourite spot, Lucky Supermarket Deli right beside the Surrey Campus — trust me, you won’t regret it. 

I’ll take mine with extra cilantro, Maggi sauce, and đồ chua (pickled carrot and radish), please.