WHAT EXACTLY IS BANH MI?
Apart from Pho, the other quintessential food to eat when one is in Vietnam is the humble Banh Mi.
Bánh mì (banh mi) literally means bread in Vietnamese.
But the word Banh Mi evokes for us an image of a 3/4 foot long baguette sliced down the side and spread with a generous dollop of mayonnaise and a bit of chilli sauce.
It is then filled with different meats, usually luncheon meats, pâté, grilled patties and sometimes other parts of the pig such as its ears and tendons.
It is always complemented with greens such as Vietnamese pickles, cilantro, cucumbers, shredded carrots and sometimes finished with peppers.
The toppings that can be had in Banh Mi all over the world can be diverse but these are the usual ones:
1. Chả or Chả Lụa (Pork Roll)– Ground up pork is packed tightly into a roll, and wrapped with banana leaves (and or aluminum foil) then steamed or boiled, producing a “pork roll” that resembles bologna or some forms of white sausage.
Sliced to varying thickness, these make up one of the most common cold cuts found in bánh mì.
2. Thịt Nguội (Cured pork cold cuts)– Thịt Nguội (translated as “Cooled Meats”), is the second most common cold cut filling. It is usually made of cured pork and layered with visible strips of fat.
Some might call it Ba Chị, which is more like pork belly.
3. Giò Thú (Headcheese)-This is usually a combination of pork ears, tendons, skin, fats and other extra pork head meats.
These bits are processed together into a gelatinous roll and then sliced when ready to serve. It has a crunchy and mouth filling texture.
4. Thịt NướNg (Grilled Pork)- Vietnamese marinated grilled pork. Various cuts of pork meat can be used ranging from pork belly, pork chops, pork shoulder, pork neck or pork butt.
5. Paté – Usually made from chicken or duck liver, pates in Banh Mi are usually used as a spread, but some menus offer pate in larger quantities, making it one of the main savoury filling ingredient.
6. Xa Xíu (Bar-B-Que Pork)- Sweet, pinkish coloured pork usually smoked or roasted. Contains seasoning such as soy, sugar, molasses, oyster sauce and a variety of other ingredients.
Cuts of pork can also vary like those of grilled pork.
7. Xíu Mại (Pork MeatBalls)- Moist Pork Meatballs cooked in a usually sweet and tangy tomato based sauce. Ground pork is marinated Việt style before making into balls and then cooked.
8. Bì (Shredded Pork Skin)- Most traditional Bì is a creation of dry, thinly sliced pork skin.
The use of Bì together with the more moist, shredded pork pieces, gives the sandwich a nice chewy crunch.
9. Nem Noung (Grilled Pork patties)– Made with garlic, these ground pork patties are grilled and commonly used by the vietnamese in many fresh spring roll and herb noodle salad dishes.
They complement the other meats used in Banh Mi.
10. Nem Chua (Sour Pork) – Raw pork skin and pork meat are seasoned with a mixture of yeast, garlic, vinegar, fish sauce, salt, sugar and pepper.
They are then wrapped (usually in banana leaves or plastic) into small squares and left to pickle and ferment for about 3-7 days.
The end product is a small, dense square of sour, pickled pork meat with a robust garlic taste. Not for the faint hearted.
11. Gà Nướng (Grilled Chicken)- Brown chicken meats are usually used and seasoned with a vietnamese marinade of lime, fish sauce, sugar, pepper, garlic and lemongrass, then grilled over a hot stove.
12. Thịt Bò Nướng (Grilled/Bar-B-Que Beef)- Vietnamese marinated beef grilled and sliced. Grilled meat options in Banh Mi are usually pork, but some offer grilled beef as an alternative.
13. Cá Mòi (Sardines)-The sardine selections (bones included, but cooked) used are usually canned sardines.
Once favoured more by Vietnamese, sardine banh mi are now getting more popular for those who prefer seafood to chunks of meat.
14. Trưng Chien (Fried Egg)- Eggs can be scrambled, well done sunny side up (but cooked on both sides) or omelet style.
15. Chay (Vegetarian)- Meatless choices can be offered in various forms:
A. Tofu Chunks – Chunks of tofu are deep fried, then sautéed with a vegetarian, Vietnamese marinade (Soy Sauce, Veggie Oyster or Veggie Mushroom Sauces).
B. Shredded Tofu (Bì Chay) – Like the Bì (Pork skin), this vegetarian version is made with thin slices of dry tofu, then mixed with stir fried sliced jicama, carrots and/or glass vermicelli noodles.
C. Veggie “Ham”– These thinly sliced salmon coloured (or cream) pieces of processed bean curd mimic the meat version quite well.
D. Wheat gluten – Gluten pieces are prepared in the same way that tofu usually is.
THE TOP THREE BANH MI IN HO CHI MINH
The article below identifies 3 of the top Banh Mi in Ho Chi Minh.
Top food writer Mark Wein also gives his comments about the Banh Mi at each of these 3 locations.
I ventured out to try those 3 he has helpfully identified.
Here are my thoughts :
1. Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa) (lesbian banh mi- most famous)
Address: 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Opening 230 pm to 11pm
Everyone in Saigon knows this shop as “Lesbian Banh Mi”, supposedly because of the leaning and inclination of the owners of this shop.
With such a racy suggestive name, we are off to a great start.
A small shop located at a busy street, there were two healthy queues already formed when I arrived. The queue moved quite fast though and in no time I had my food.
Each Banh Mi was standard with a bit of everything you see in the photos.
I swear Vietnam makes the lightest, flakiest and crispiest baguette in the world. The fact that they still charcoal grill their baguette tells you to what to expect.
When I bit into this Banh Mi, the crackling and flake shattering orgasmic goodness just made me close my eyes and smile stupidly.
Next came the incredible wave of layers, subtle and no one ingredient overpowering the other.
Strangely enough with the smorgasbord of meats and ingredients, the one thought “fresh” came to mind.
And amazingly I tasted everything in stages and layers.
I tasted the robust liver like pate, next nibbled happily on the chewy pork belly, marvelled at the creamy pork luncheon, was playfully titillated by the bunch of crunchy vegetables, felt a searing sensation when I chanced upon the fiery sliced light green chilli (it was fiery like “balls numbing” fiery).
But everything worked like a dream.
I was as pleased as a fly on faeces with a pleasant disposition.
I became as contented as an extroverted pig rolling in a gooey slime, then finding out it’s edible and has antioxidant properties.
It was without question the best Banh Mi I have had in my entire wretched life.
At this rate, I would happily join the Lesbians.
2. Banh Mi 37 Nguyen Trai (Bánh Mì Thịt Nướng Hẻm 39)
Address: 37 Nguyễn Trãi, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (but it’s right at Hem 39)
Opening hours: Usually from around 5 pm – 7:30 pm or so daily
When the taxi guy pointed me to enter the small dark alley, I thought there must be a mistake.
In the barren unlit alley, I could only see 2 carts with no customers. I walked in and the second cart was the stall.
I ordered my Banh Mi to go and I must say the meat patties looked very appealing.
After devouring the lesbian Banh Mi, I was stoked and the positive write up in Mark Wein’s article of this particular Banh Mi was operating in my mind.
I was as hopeful as an erect hobo at a nymphomaniac conference where I was the only speaker.
Score city was coming.
The bread was good – about 95% of the Lesbian.
Then a disappointing screech. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great Banh Mi to me.
It was one dimensional and all I tasted was the cloying over sweet teriyaki glaze which obfuscated any taste of the patty.
It was a phantasmagoria of mediocrity, a cacophony of meh.
I was as disappointed as an exuberant rhino given a bunch of non fat gluten free diary-less cookies.
It was a sweet meatball sub not Banh Mi.
Didn’t work for me.
3. Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa)
Address: 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Opening hours: Opened only in the evenings from 4pm onwards
I finally tried Banh Mi Hong Hoa.
Bread is as good as Lesbian, maybe even better.
Mark Wein prefers Hong Hoa because he says it’s more balanced and well constructed as he finds Lesbian is just too full of meat (some of you will appreciate the irony).
Whattttt? Dude- Is there such a thing as too much meat?
In which frigging metro-vegetable horror planet does this principle apply ?
Look – the writer of the article is the famous Mark Weins. He is well mannered and metrosexual.
Now when it comes to meat, will you trust his metro-ness Subject A, or the hardly-evolved-apelike-meat chomping child man-whore Subject B above ?
Hong Hoa is a very close second but I find the Lesbian Banh Mi more exuberant in taste precisely because of the extra dong (meat ) in there.
Give me Lesbians any day.