Sandwiches are such a staple in so many cuisines that it's hard to imagine what life was like before they existed. According to history, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu the compulsive gambler, was playing a game of cards in 1762 with friends and didn’t want to stop for a bite to eat. He told the cook to bring him something he could eat with one hand. Thus, the sandwich was born.
Since that fateful day in England, you can find the sandwich around the world — especially in Vietnam. The country that’s popularly known for its phở is also the home of the bánh mì sandwich. So, what is it and how did it become such a foodie favorite?
What Is a Bánh Mì Sandwich?
A bánh mì sandwich is a Vietnamese sandwich that’s typically made with baguette bread. The bread is filled with a wide choice of grilled meats, pickled vegetables, and common Vietnamese spices. Officially, the word "bánh mì" is the Vietnamese word for wheat bread. Apart from identifying that it’s a Vietnamese sandwich, saying you want a bánh mì won’t specify the type of meat it contains. Typically, bánh mì sandwiches come with a wide choice of meats — all of which are cooked using traditional Vietnamese recipes.
Where Did the Bánh Mì Sandwich Originate?
Once upon a time, Vietnam was a French-occupied territory that was known as Indochina. During this period from 1887 to 1954, a variety of European imports were adopted by locals. Notable items included coffee, Christianity, and flaky baguette bread. In the early days of the baguette in Vietnam, it was considered a food that only the wealthiest people could eat. In a perfect example of colonization, the French dictated that the Vietnamese couldn’t alter or enhance any of the French cuisine recipes or ingredients that they brought with them. Because of this, baguette sandwiches were locally known as "bahn tay" or "western bread" and were mostly eaten by the French.
As a result, the average Vietnamese citizen wasn’t noshing on meat-filled baguettes until around World War I when the French got involved in the war effort. Stores of foods that were exclusively reserved for European colonists in Vietnam were made available to locals as the French military left to fight in World War I. Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) was the first city where local citizens could sample not only the baguette, but also the tasty sandwiches that the French occupiers had enjoyed. However, these were not bánh mì sandwiches but, rather a simple sandwich with cold cuts, cheese, and a bit of butter. The real bánh mì sandwich would come later.
Fast forward to 1954. The French suffered a final defeat at Điện Biên Phủ. In addition to Vietnam gaining its independence, another positive side effect from France’s exit from the nation was that Vietnamese cooks were now free to play with French recipes however they saw fit — including incorporating their ingredients and cooking styles.
How the Bánh Mì Sandwich Was Born
The invention of the bánh mì sandwich is credited to two people — a married couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Le. During this time, Vietnam split into two countries and the Le's fled North Vietnam for South Vietnam. The couple relocated in Saigon and opened a shop. In 1958, they began to make travel-friendly sandwiches that utilized the French baguette but filled it with meats, spices, and vegetables cooked in the traditional Vietnamese style. In contrast to its predecessors, the bánh mì was an affordable, quick bite. While bánh mì sandwiches can be found across the country, Saigon is still considered the best place to get the most authentic version of these sandwiches.
To this day, you can still visit Saigon and enjoy an authentic bánh mì sandwich at the Le’s family-run restaurant called Bánh Mì Hòa Mã with their granddaughter at the helm. Although the bánh mì sandwich may have humble beginnings and is still considered the ultimate street food of Vietnam, it has since joined the ranks of other popular fares like sushi, tacos, and pad thai since it's a dish that’s available all over the world and is loved by foodies across the globe.