Food & Culture

Anatomy of a dish: banh mi

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

By Harriet Davidson
The banh mi 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. Its story 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. Just don't fancy up the bread.

The bread

As with burgers, any attempt to fancy-up the bread detracts from the banh mi'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 banh mi are slices of cha lua, a steamed pork roll, among other types of thit nguoi, or Vietnamese cold cuts. Grilled or roast pork, nem (cured pork), and gio thu, Vietnam's answer to brawn (aka headcheese) can also feature. You'll often see shredded chicken, too.

The crunch

Do 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 banh mi'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 banh mi will set you back just five bucks. In Melbourne, Bun Bun in Springvale is revered for its barbecue pork rolls.