Which Vietnamese food, besides Pho, do most people love to try for the first time when they travel to this amazing country?
The answer is Banh Mi. Together with “Pho” and “Ao Dai”, the words “Banh Mi” have been officially defined in the Oxford Dictionary because of their delicious tastes and popularity worldwide. This Vietnamese food guide will bring you more insights into the Banh Mi, its origin, variations, and where to buy this famous bread.
A Brief History of Banh Mi
Banh mi was first introduced to Vietnam during the French colonial period. It is a modification of the baguette, which was a staple food of the French in the 19th century. The baguette, paired with pork pâté, ham, cheese, and butter to serve only the French colonists at expensive restaurants and cafes, was still a luxury product to most Vietnamese.
When the locals learned how to make this food themselves, Banh Mi became a common product, like other Western products such as condensed milk, coffee, and beer. The bakeries opened one after another in Saigon, some of which served the local class’ needs and became a hit, making Banh Mi the favorite breakfast of the Saigonese until now.
Banh Mi in Vietnamese Foods Culture
In Vietnam, besides famous dishes such as Com Tam (broken rice), Pho (beef noodle soup), and Banh Cuon (steamed rice rolls), Banh Mi is a typical Vietnamese breakfast that is convenient and ideal for people who have to go to work or study early in the mornings. That is the reason why most Banh mi vendors are takeaways, without any chairs or tables for you to sit down.
In Vietnamese, Banh Mi is just a plain baguette or bread, without any stuffing. However, the Banh Mi with meat has grown in popularity all over the world, so the term is now also used to refer to a kind of sandwich.
Banh Mi’s Ingredients
Below are the ingredients of the original “Banh Mi Thit”, meaning banh mi with meat, but can be improvised in many other variations.
In most Vietnamese markets, there is at least one traditional bakery which you can easily find when visiting the local markets, especially in the morning. The first baguettes of the day are often made very early in the morning. Different from the French baguettes made wholly from wheat flour, Banh Mi’s dough is a mixture of rice flour and wheat flour because wheat hardly grows in a tropical country like Vietnam. The length of the Banh Mi is shorter, and its crust is also more brittle than that of the original French baguettes.
One of the ingredients that create Banh Mi’s irresistible taste is pâté. Pâté is a spread made from the meat and liver of animals like pigs, cows, ducks, and chickens. In Vietnam, its main ingredient is chiefly the pig liver. The liver pâté cans are sold in many supermarkets or local markets. However, most local Banh Mi’s stallholders make this spread themselves with their secret recipes or buy homemade ones to create that unique flavor, differentiating their Banh Mi from that of other vendors.
Another crucial spread in Banh Mi is the light and creamy mixture of egg yolk and cooking oil. It is quite easy to make this mayonnaise, so the sellers usually use their homemade ones or they can buy it from the supermarkets. This mixture seems simple, but once you combine it with other ingredients, it is a golden star. You can even spread it on plain bread and sprinkle a little sugar to make a small snack like Vietnamese usually do when we don’t have much time for breakfast.
Pork Sausage and Ham
Meat is the most important ingredient of Banh Mi. Therefore, it is a crucial factor to judge whether a Banh Mi is good or not. The Vietnamese often use the ham like the French used to have with their original baguettes. Let’s imagine that you are grabbing a delightful Banh Mi and opening it to see what is inside. A layer of red ham slice is placed on the greens. When taking a bite, the shining fat and well-seasoned meat create a soft texture, contrasting with the crunch of vegetables like cucumber, cilantro, chili, pickled carrot, and daikon radish. They can also stuff Vietnamese pork sausage in the Banh Mi. The saltiness and the chewy edges add more texture and season to the Banh Mi.
Last, but not least, the Banh Mi would be incomplete without Vietnamese vegetables such as cucumber, pickled carrot, daikon radish, scallions, and cilantro. Not everyone is a fan of these ingredients, so you can ask the seller to leave them out, but it would be a lack of original flavors and texture.
The cucumber slices create a crunchy texture and freshness to balance with the fat and creamy mayonnaise. The cilantro gives Banh Mi a unique herby fragrant perfume. A little sour from pickled carrot and radish to keep you in for another bite. And the chili adds extra heat and vivid color to highlight the whole Banh Mi.
Banh Mi Variations
Banh Mi Thit (Sausage and Ham)
The sellers often cut open the bread on one side, have a good spray of soy sauce on one side, spread the mouth-drooling pâté and mayonnaise on another, put cucumbers slice lining up along with the cilantro, pickled carrot and radish, and chili to fit the length of the Banh Mi, and then place the Banh Mi’s main stars, sausage, and ham, on top of them. This Banh Mi is the one that most people buy because it is affordable, delicious, and easy to eat on the go.
Price: VND 15,000+
Banh Mi Cha Ca (Fried Fish Patty)
Instead of pork, fried fish meat is put inside the Banh Mi with layers of mayonnaise and vegetables. The taste of Banh Mi Cha Ca is as appetizing as the original Banh Mi Thit. It might sound like a strange combination, but the chewy fish patty and its saltiness would amaze you after the first bite.
Price: VND 15,000+
Banh Mi Op La (Sunny-Side-Up)
There is a little difference in the way that Vietnamese enjoy the sunny-side-up egg and Banh Mi. While the French would plate the eggs on the dish and eat the bread separately, the Vietnamese put the fried egg in the Banh Mi, and drizzle some chilly sauce, crushed pepper, and sliced cucumber and greens on top. Then, you can just enjoy all of the ingredients in one bite and feel the runny egg yolk soaking in the soft white bread.
Price: VND 10,000 – VND 15,000
Banh Mi Xiu Mai (Meatballs)
Instead of putting ham or sausage, the Vietnamese-Chinese sellers often cook pork meatballs with tomato sauce to make the flavor soaked in the Vietnamese baguette. The classic combination of soft meat with a bit of heat from the black pepper and tangy sauce gives a little twist by putting it in a loaf of bread, which is definitely something you should try.
Price: VND 15,000 – VND 20,000
Banh Mi Ca Moi (Canned Sardines)
Canned sardines in tomato sauce is one of the familiar processed foods to most Vietnamese families. The sardine and tomato sauce is usually mixed with onion slices, soy sauce, and ground pepper. The fish is now good to be served with either a hot bowl of rice or together with the Banh Mi.
Price: VND 15,000+
Banh Mi Heo Quay (Roasted Pork)
Like the Banh Mi Thit, Banh Mi Heo Quay is also stuffed with cucumber, cilantro, pickles, and chili, but the roasted pork is used instead of sausage and ham. The soy sauce is also replaced by the gravy made from pork fat. The smell and the crispy skin of the roasted pork go perfectly well with a freshly baked loaf of Banh Mi.
Price: VND 20,000+
A typical banh mi cart is filled with a vibrant assortment of cold cuts and pickles
Famous Banh Mi Stores in Saigon
Address: 26 Le Thi Rieng Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1
Opening hours: 2:30 PM – 11 PM
Known as one of the most expensive Banh mi stalls in Saigon, their brand name is not only well-known to the Saigonese but also to foreign visitors. Throughout opening time, many people come here and wait in line to buy a Banh mi. Although the price of each Banh Mi is almost US$ 2, which is quite expensive, it is a worth-to-try experience for people who love Vietnamese street foods. Moreover, because of the special flavor of their pâté, we recommend you come here to enjoy the best Banh Mi in Saigon.
51 Cao Thang Street, District 3
Opening hours: 7 AM – 10 AM
The founder of this brand used to work in a cold-cuts company that supplied a lot of meat products to French restaurants in Hanoi. When she and her husband moved to Saigon, they decided to run a Banh Mi stall to serve the locals. In 1958, the store opened, and it has become the oldest Banh Mi stall in Saigon. At first, they also served customers with Vietnamese baguettes and ham like other French-style restaurants. However, most of their customers were workers, students, and officers so they couldn’t spend much time at the stall to enjoy Banh Mi in the morning rush. It was then the owner thought it would be more convenient to add ham, grilled pork, and pâté inside the Vietnamese baguette and let customers take it away to save their time. They are still serving in both styles, takeaways, and sitting at the stalls adjacent to the streets, eating from a sizzling hot pan.
Banh Mi Thit Nuong 37 Nguyen Trai
37 Nguyen Trai Street, District 1
Opening hours: 4 PM – 9 PM
This address is just of a normal street food vendor, but most of the locals who live in Saigon know about this Banh mi stall. The specialty of the store is the flavorful BBQ round pork patties. It is also one of the popular Banh Mi stalls in Saigon. Besides, it just costs you about US$ 1 to get one tasteful grilled pork Banh mi.
Summing up Our Guide to the Banh Mi
Banh Mi is now not just a Vietnamese baguette or a variation of the French baguette, but it is recognized as a significant dish in Vietnamese cuisine. You could only taste and experience the authentic version of the Banh Mi and see their diversity in Vietnam. Have you ever tried the famous Banh Mi? Tell us what you think in the comment below.
Read more on Vietnamese Foods:
15 Vietnamese Street Food Options You Should Try
What to expect from your Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Food Tours