Time to hang another jersey in the rafters. Right next to Philly cheese steak, meatball sub, and the Dagwood, we have Bahn Mi. That irresistible combination of crusty bread, crunchy veggies, succulent pork and cilantro. The Vietnamese give the world another perfect sandwich.
What most Americans expect from a bahn mi is a mashup of traditional Vietnamese ingredients and that which they stole during the French colonization: bread and mayo. From the sunny shores of LA to the icy waters of Maine, American’s have built an appetite for bahn mi.
Thanks to purveyors like the Nomnom Truck in Los Angeles, we have a standardized recipe. A personal sized baguette (a.k.a., the demi-baguette) painted with mayo then layered with meat, sliced cukes, a tart salad of carrots & daikon, fresh cilantro and more often than not, sliced, fresh jalapenos.
Diners are encouraged to amp up the heat and garlic intensity with sriracha. Or deepen the meaty flavors with fish sauce.
Spend a little more time on the topic, and you will find variations on this theme. Add a fried egg and watch the yolk ooze it’s way down your elbow.
Vegetarians opt for tofu and avocado instead of the classic honey-bbq pork or lemon-grass chicken.
The kind folks at the food stand on the San Francisco turned ground pork into meatballs. (image at top)
The bakery wizards at Elizabeth Street Cafe evicted the pork altogether. In it’s place they offer kaffir-lime fried chicken.
And the beloved Taco Deli of Austin, TX, has cashed out on dough risen from yeast. In it’s place is the ever-flat tortilla. Corn brings shine to the razor whip of limey jalapeno dressing.
The fascinating aspect is how each of these expressions remain Bahn Mi. Which leaves us the question: what makes anything a bahn mi? How much can you remove or substitute before it is no longer bahn mi?
“Banh is a word for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent. Spring rolls can be called banh, as can crepes. Sandwiches, and any baked goods are called banh. Sweets and savouries wrapped in leaves to be steamed or grilled are called banh. The only constant is that banh are small culinary bundles or other constructions, often eaten with the hands.”
—World Food: Vietnam, Richard Sterling, Lonely Planet (p. 181-182)
quote courtesy of FoodTimeline.org
A little research will tell you that in Vietnam, bahn simply refers to bread or cake. So it might not even be a savory item. There are accounts of leaf-wrapped items from street vendors that carry the name of bahn mi. Travel writer Richard Sterling suggests that the common denominator is that the cuisine must hand-held. Travel worthy.
In other words, “it depends.”
Better said, it’s context driven. It can be sweet or savory. Crunchy or chewy. Contain bread or not. Have meat or be vegetable driven. Found on the street or in restaurants.
Bahn mi is the spirit of an adventure. A journey down a tree-lined path. Next to an icey brook and eagles soaring overhead.
An unlikely combination of edibles that sing their own melody. And yet form a single chorus.
A dance of cultures. A marriage between the house of Montague and the house of Capulet. A romance that never exhausts our imagination.
Where is your bahn mi? What has met the criteria of action, comedy, and romance? Share it in the comments field.
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