Banh Mi for International Women’s Day

Banh Mi for International Women’s Day

“What does the Vietnamese sandwich Banh Mi have to do with International Women’s Day?”  you may ask.

Probably nothing in the big world, but in my personal world, I happened to be in Vietnam for my first real celebration, rather than just an acknowledgement, of International Women’s Day.  And in a strange way, Banh mi is rather fitting given its history.

The Banh Mi Sandwich

The Banh Mi to which I refer is, of course, the Banh Mi sandwich, a crispy baguette split lengthwise and then filled with a choice or an assortment of meats, topped with pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro and a sauce.  In Vietnam, it is very easy to buy it on the street and is usually eaten for breakfast or as a snack.  It is also inexpensive. 

The important history

Its history starts with oppression and ends with freedom. While it could seem to be just a symbol of a wonderful cultural blending of ingredients – the baguette from the French with the fillings from Vietnam – it is actually more than that. It is a symbol of ending the oppression and racism of French colonialism in Vietnam.

The French history in Vietnam began when they decided that they needed to protect the French missionaries in southern Vietnam.  It began with the attack of now Da Nang in 1857 and ended in 1862 with the beginning of French colonial rule of Cochinchina, the southern part of Vietnam and part of Cambodia.

To maintain their European diet, the French imported wheat, which would not grow there.  Not that they could afford to eat French bread, butter or cheese anyway, but they were forbidden to alter the European food in any way, another expression of the rascims and enforcement of the sense of European superiority. 

In WWI, the Germans were expelled and their companies seized.  This included warehouses with perishable European food.  To get rid of it, the French offered it to the Vietnamese markets, making what would become key ingredients in Banh Mi – pate, cold cuts, bread and seasoning sauce – affordable to the Vietnamese.

As we now know it

The change to Banh Mi as we now know it came about after the French withdrew from Indochina in 1954. The Vietnamese were finally able to “alter the European food” and make it their own, using local ingredients as fillings. 

The French case-croute, a traditional French baguette served with a plate of cold cuts, pate, ham, cheese and butter, evolved into the Banh Mi in the 1950’s, made less expensive with a shorter, lighter baguette, local ingredients, less meat and more vegetables, and using mayonnaise instead of butter.

The baguette itself also changed, with some rice flour added to the wheat, making the banh sweeter, lighter and fluffier and the crust also thinner and crispier. 

They applied techniques learned from the French to make their own processed meats, such as Chả lụa, a cooked pork roll lightly seasoned with fish sauce, and traditionally steamed or boiled in a banana leaf, Thịt nguội, a Vietnamese salami containing cured pork layered with fat, and Giò thủ made from a pig’s head but can also be made with calf or sheep, congealed together by the natural gelatin of the head organs,

The combination of ingredients reflects the Vietnamese culinary philosophy of harmonizing flavours and balance with yin and yang.  The salty and sour flavours come from pickled carrots and daikon provide the salty, sour flavour.  Some type of chilli or chilli sauce provides the spicy flavour, usually in the form of a sauce.  Cilantro and cucumber give a fresh, crunchiness.

No wonder Anthony Bourdain called it a “symphony of a sandwich!”

Though I love it as a sandwich, eaten at any time of day, with its 160 years of history, to me it is a symbol of freedom, an achievement gained through resilience, perseverance and resourcefulness i.e. another reason it came to mind for International Women’s Day. (which itself has a long list of interesting resources)