The Sandwich

Banh mi is the generic term for a baguette sandwich, usually available at a street stall, and generally served at breakfast or dinner, rarely lunch.

Baguettes are a relic of French colonialism. It's odd that they survived the departure of the French from Indochine; elsewhere in Asia yeast bread does not exist. It is generally sold there as 8" rolls now, and is only used for sandwiches. Other French staples like cheese never took root: the only kind we saw was the odd foil-wrapped soft processed cheese food with the smiling cow logo. Coffee is another hold-over from the French, though tea, Asia's primary beverage, is also popular. Staying with the French motif, wine was available but heavily taxed-- perhaps for its bourgeois associations. (Sorry about all the French words all of a sudden. Still, it was once lingua franca, until it was displaced by English, then American.) We drank lots of bottled water, coffee (hot, with condensed milk, and iced) and local beer, such as 333, Tiger, or Huda. All were similar in appearance and taste, light, refreshing rice-based brews that complemented the climate and food well.

I love the banh mi, and we would return to our favorite vendor four times in Saigon. This was a sandwich of grilled ground pork patties, each the size of a couple of stacked silver dollars. They were quickly formed and thrown on a small, very hot charcoal brazier and cooked until fragrantly, smokily caramelized, frequently and expertly flipped with chopsticks—this performed by a male assistant to the chef. Our chef, a middle-aged woman, cut open baguette rolls and spread each with a little liver pate (probably pig), then filled each with 5 patties. She added a some cilantro and pickled shredded carrot, then two sauces—a hot one and some kind of sweet sauce-- probably nuom choc, the ubiquitous VN condiment that starts with fish sauce, into which a little dark soy sauce had probably been mixed.

We discovered her by walking down the street our first night in Saigon-- the smell of the grilling pork patties was all the advertisement she needed. We'd initially walked past her; this would be our first "street meal" and I confess to being slightly nervous. But the aroma and her skills, the line of customers, and the fact that she'd probably been doing this for years, and would be doing it for many more, helped us get over our initial fear. We're grateful we did.

She worked quickly and methodically. I have worked with many professional cooks, and she could keep up with any of them. No wasted movement, very fluid-- cutting the roll with scissors and setting it on the grill to warm; shaping patties in a small mold, filling the 12" square grate with meat; retrieving rolls and patties and assembling the sandwiches; then wrapping them with a bit of paper and a rubber band, before completing the transaction and giving you your change from a draw.

The sandwiches were 6,000 Dong each—about $.40. On return trips we’d give her 20,000 for two and have to fight to keep her from giving us the change.

We returned the next night with our guide Hue who we insisted tell this woman how fantastic her food was; by then it was 9 pm and her evening was winding down. She seemed tired but happy for the compliment.

Since our return I've mimicked the sandwiches. You know what? They were fine. But only because I didn't expect them to be the same.
I enjoyed banh mi in Hoi An (this with sliced roasted pork, instead of grilled patties) and Hue-- an interesting slice of pressed meat which had been cut from a length of bamboo, around which the meat had been wrapped and grilled. All were tasty, but our friend in Saigon had the best.

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