The French were in Vietnam for nearly a century. The most curious evidence of this is the ubiquity of the baguette there. Southeast Asian countries generally have so little passion for crunchy, wheat-flour, oh-so-Western loaves that this bread bonanza is startling. The Vietnamese baguette is a bit stumpier than its French cousin, a tad fluffier inside. And whereas the French may fill theirs primly with a little butter, maybe some ham or pate, the Vietnamese make Dagwood Bumstead look like a minimalist. • No doubt about it. The banh mi sandwich is a near-perfect food. Pronounced BUN-mee, it seems to be sweeping American cities this summer, each sandwich architect adding his or her own zesty spin.
B.T. Nguyen, chef/owner of Tampa's Restaurant BT, says it's a Vietnamese street food found on every corner in Ho Chi Minh City. A baguette is split and piled high with a variety of sliced meats; pickled carrots, daikon radish and cucumber; rounds of jalapeno or Thai chilies; and a tangle of cilantro or other herbs.
"The French brought us the bread and the pate, and we incorporated our own ingredients. There's cha lua, our own form of pate, really a kind of ground pork mousse that is whipped, wrapped in a banana leaf and then steamed and sliced really thin," Nguyen says. "Then we use different cold cuts like fresh bacon, marinated and slow-cooked."
What has made it a recent fixation among the country's foodies is twofold: First, they are cheap, starting as low as $2. And second, the assemblage of ingredients hits a range of sophisticated flavor notes. There's salty, sweet, spicy and aromatic, and textures that range from luxuriantly rich to crisp and light. Like any good 21st century sandwich, it's inclusive: cooks have added Polish kielbasa, Creole sausage, chili mayonnaise, garlic butter, meatballs, chicken curry, grilled eel and lots of other goodies, depending on whim and their own cultural heritage.
Still, says Sing Hurt, co-owner of Tampa's Bamboozle Café, the bread is the trickiest part.
"I was born in Vietnam but grew up in Tampa. We used to go to Orlando to find the bread. It's more like a hoagie, crisp on the outside but with a very soft interior. At Bamboozle, we get our bread par-baked and bake it off ourselves. It makes a huge difference."
To try your own hand at what has quickly become a culinary obsession (see battleofthebanhmi.com) for many cooks, start with this basic recipe and tinker.
As Hurt says, "It's great to see how much flavor a sandwich can have."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.