Anatomy of a dish: bánh mì thịt

This fusion of French and Vietnamese flavour is wrapped up in a neat package.
Ben Hansen

“In my eyes, banh mi is up there with the sandwiches of the world. It’s the perfect balance of richness, acidity, texture, freshness and spice. In short, everything you could ever want in a sandwich.” – Dan Hong in Mr Hong.

The bánh mì thịt is so much more than a sandwich. It’s cross-cultural pollination and conflict, crunch and squish, fire and fragrance all in a handy handful. The story of bánh mì thịt begins when the French arrived in Saigon in the late 19th century, bringing their bread with them. Locals eventually tweaked and ran with it, adding familiar flavours in an example of fusion at its best.

In Australia, as Vietnamese bakeries selling rolls filled with lunch meats, pâté, pickles, coriander, chilli and spring onion became fixtures, variations appeared – tinned tuna giving it a salad-sandwich lean, or bacon and eggs upgrading the tradies’ breakfast staple. We’ll take them any way we can.

The bread

As with burgers, any attempt to fancy-up the bread detracts from the bánh mì’s ephemeral beauty. The crunch and fluffiness of the classic Vietnamese baguette, a legacy of the French occupation of Vietnam, is what you need here.

The sauce

Mayonnaise and a thick smear of pâté – usually chicken liver and pork – line the roll. Then a soy-based dressing (shops mix their own, often including fish sauce and garlic) ties all the flavours together. A splash of Maggi seasoning is common, and sriracha is always welcome.

The meats

Common inclusions for a pork bánh mì are slices of chả lụa, a steamed pork roll, among other types of thịt nguọi, or Vietnamese cold cuts. Grilled or roast pork, nem (cured pork), and giò thủ, Vietnam’s answer to brawn (aka headcheese) can also feature. You’ll often see shredded chicken, too, turning your sandwich into a bánh mì gà.

The crunch

Đồ chua – julienned carrot and daikon pickled in sugar, salt and vinegar – and long slices of fresh cucumber add sweet, cooling crunch to help balance all that meatiness.

The freshness

The flavour of South East Asia comes through loud and clear in the coriander and spring onion packed along a bành mì’s length. And the only answer when you’re asked if you’d like chilli is, of course, “yes”.

Where to find one

Join the queue at hole-in-the-wall Marrickville Pork Roll in Sydney, where a bánh mì thịt will cost you less than a tenner. In Melbourne, Bun Bun in Springvale is revered for its barbecue pork rolls.

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