Although it’s difficult to give a definitive birthplace for a dish, the picturesque central Vietnamese city of Hoi An is one to lay claim as the home of what is seen by many as the ultimate sandwich, the banh mi.
Banh mi translates as "bread", with some suggesting that its name derives from the French pain de mie. What’s clear is that its history dates back to the period of French colonial rule in Vietnam, from 1887 onwards, at least officially.
Ostensibly a simple, small baguette-style bread with any combination of meat, paté, vegetables fruit and myriad seasonings and sauces, the banh mi has become globally beloved in recent years for its classic Vietnamese hallmark of perfectly mixing textures and tastes. It creates what the late Anthony Bourdain once beautifully called "a symphony of a sandwich".
Banh Mi in Its Birthplace
Certainly his legacy and enthusiastic endorsement has helped propel certain banh mi vendors in Hoi An to the realms of minor culinary celebrities. At Banh Mi Phuong, the constant line of locals and visitors alike has clearly been very good for business. A shot from Bourdain’s No Reservations show, showing him tucking in enthusiastically, adorns both the front of the humble shop as well as on every piece of brown paper used to wrap the sandwiches.
No fewer than twelve banh mi options tempt the hungry who come morning, noon and night. The pate and grilled pork version won my vote, a lovely mix of ingredients assembled at lightning speed by a line of four ladies with chopsticks, working their way down a line of ingredients, picking and filling, spooning and spreading. If Bourdain called the sandwich "a symphony", then those chopsticks were the conductor’s batons, orchestrating a brilliant mix of multiple ingredients including marinated grilled pork and smooth homemade pate, fresh crunchy cucumber and zingy chilli sauce.
In the line I meet a young couple from Singapore on their first visit to Hoi An, carrying a state-of-the-art camera and kit to make a journalist jealous – but they’re just tourists, keen like almost everyone else, to immortalise their simple sandwich in photos. They explained that they didn’t know Bourdain had been there, but came on the recommendation of a friend.
A much quieter and more relaxed spot – and for my money, a better sandwich - came at Madame Khanh, the self-proclaimed "Banh Mi Queen". Last time I was there, the 78-year-old also known as Nguyễn Thị Lộc made me the sandwich herself, but two years later the banh mi was carefully-crafted by her granddaughters layering roast pork with shards of papaya and carrot, coriander, pate and pickles under generous spoons of the very special secret sauce which binds it all so beautifully together.
Elsewhere in the town, chef Tran Van Sen at the elegant beachside Four Seasons Nam Hai resort explains why the humble sandwich is so universally loved: "Everyone loves a good sandwich - but not a soggy one. The Vietnamese have perfected the ultimate sandwich bread inspired by the French baguette - light and crispy. It's relatively straightforward - approachable ingredients that are fresh and packed full of Vietnamese bold flavours. A historical homage to the history of Vietnam in a handheld and easy-to-eat form, perfect while seeing the ancient sites of Hoi An."
Banh Mi Around the World
Away from Hoi An, there are countless versions of banh mi around the world.
Chef Peter Cuong Franklin at Anan restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City is at the forefront of cutting-edge Vietnamese cuisine and launched a banh mi which made headlines as it costs US$100 – around 100 times the cost of a banh mi on the street. The reason? He added pork cooked sous vide, sautéed foie gras and copious black truffle to the sandwich.
In New York, at Brooklyn’s Falansai restaurant, a baguette is filled with home-made aioli, cucumber, carrot, daikon and coriander before optional fillings of grilled pork, beef and chicken, or a vegetarian take of tofu smothered with garlic, shallot and lemongrass and avocado. Chef/owner Henry Trieu has ensured Falansai is the definition of hipster with its industrial-chic setting.
London is not short of genuine Vietnamese spots and the battle of the best banh mi has many contenders, but one mentioned time and again is Keu – that’s partly because their bread comes from the Sally Clarke bakery, renowned as one of the city’s best. Add in a sweet and strong Vietnames drip coffee for the full experience.
Finally in Paris, Khai Tri are one of many Vietnamese spots in the 13th arrondissement. What’s lovely about them is the place is half bookshop and half restaurant, meaning you can read up more on the story of banh mi while enjoying an authentic version made right in front of you.