If we are lucky enough to get a few days of sun in the UK this summer, we’ll probably all be reaching for the tongs and firing up the flames for a good old-fashioned British barbecue. I love an incinerated burger and sausage as much as the next person, but sometimes you crave something a little more flavoursome and punchy when that warm weather hits. And with this quintessential Vietnamese dish, there’s no need to abandon our beloved barbecue as the filling is at its best when seared over a high heat.
Bánh Mì is not just a delicious summery meal, though. Its creation was the product of French colonial rule that controlled Vietnam for more than 60 years, and its intriguing mix of ingredients and flavours reflects the influence of European tastes on Vietnamese cuisine. The enduring popularity of Bánh Mì, and indeed numerous other dishes created during the colonial period, goes to show the extent to which this tumultuous chapter of Vietnamese history still permeates everyday life in Vietnam, long after it became independent. Bánh Mì is the ultimate proof that food is never just food; it tells stories, preserves the past, and expresses identities.
This bright, zingy sandwich starts with the most famous of all French bread, the baguette. Wheat can’t be grown in Vietnam’s tropical climate, so baguettes were initially imported to cater to the tastes of French colonisers and were thus considered a luxury. During the colonial period, baguettes were typically eaten the French way, with jambon-beurre or charcuterie. In 1954, France withdrew from Vietnam, but their bread remained. Bánh Mì vendors all over Vietnam still use traditional French baguettes to this day.
Let’s talk condiments. Traditionally, the crusty baguette is slathered in mayonnaise and – wait for it – pâté. Both indulgent spreads are clearly unapologetically French, but crucially they give that big hunk of bread a moist and savoury base, ready to be layered with juicy pork, chicken or meatballs. The beauty of this Vietnamese delicacy lies in its versatility. It’s easy to swap the meat for tofu, skip on the pâté and use vegan mayo if you’re looking for a plant-based version. In fact, I would argue that Bánh Mì is one of the best meals to ‘veganise’ because you can substitute ingredients without compromising too much on flavour. Whatever your protein of choice, the umami hit actually comes from the marinade, typically a mix of traditional Vietnamese flavours like soy sauce, fish sauce (or vegan fish sauce), lemongrass, sugar, ginger and garlic.
What really makes all these flavours sing is the tangy tartness of pickled carrots and daikon radish. It can be tricky to source these in the UK (and especially in Market Square Tesco) so you can double up on the carrots or get creative and use Chinese cabbage. All these ingredients– the creamy mayo, salty pork and sharp pickled veg – combine to make a sandwich that is a real pleasure to eat, and which satisfies the need for fresh, bold flavours that I always seem to get when the sun comes out.
So, the next time you find yourself scanning the aisles for barbecue food, why not try something different, give your tastebuds a treat, and give Bánh Mì a go. Not only is it a serious crowd pleaser, but it’s also fusion food in the truest sense. It combines the best elements of two seemingly disparate cuisines to create a very moreish summer meal.
Recipe for Bánh Mì (serves 2)
For the protein:
4 boneless skinless chicken thighs OR 2 large pork belly strips OR 1 block of tofu
1 garlic clove, crushed
½ thumb-sized piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
½ tbsp soy sauce
½ tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp lemongrass paste
1 tsp honey
For the pickled veg:
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
¼ tsp caster sugar
¼ tsp sea salt
1 carrot, peeled and sliced into thin batons
1 daikon radish, peeled and sliced into thin batons
For the sandwich:
1 large baguette
Handful fresh coriander
½ cucumber, sliced into thin batons (optional)
(Adapted from BBC Food. See article above for vegan swaps.)