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All About Bánh Mì, the Vietnamese Sandwich

written by Winnie Wangui 25th July 2018

Whether for breakfast or mid morning snacks, Vietnamese sandwiches are an amazing way to break you fast and fill yourself up with an essentially nutritious and tasty breakfast. Winnie Wangui makes the trek to an unassuming eatery in Hardy, to find out what the fuss is all about.

Photos: Peter Ndungu

One Vietnamese Baguette lands on our table, divided into four equal parts. It’s the first time for any of us to try out this classic sandwich. A peek at its fillings, leads to some contemplation on how exactly we are to chomp this down. At first glance it seems too big to fit in my mouth a problem, I note, that our art director John doesn’t seem to have: grabbing the sandwich one hand he takes a big bite and then nods in approval.

Popularly consumed as a breakfast, mid-morning or afternoon snack, the Vietnamese Baguette, also known as Bánh Mì’, is an airy loaf with a crunchy crust containing a copious amount of fillings. Chicken, pork, beef, carrot slices, chilli, pickles, peppers, cucumber, a few dashes of sauces, mayonnaise- there seems to be no end of things you can stick into a Bánh Mì’. A bite into a well stacked Bánh Mì’ takes you on a spicy, savoury, sweet and sour moment of pleasure.

Bánh Mì’s date back to the late 1950s in Saigon, a city in Southern Vietnam, famous for the pivotal role it played during the Vietnam War which ended about 40 years ago. When the French arrived in Vietnam in the 17th Century, they brought with them the baguette (a long thin loaf) which the Vietnamese called Bánh Mì’ (wheat bread). As time went by, the Vietnamese experimented with the French baguette, with some mixing rice flour with wheat flour aiming for a fluffier bread which would be easier to stuff with their favourite ingredients. Eventually, the sandwich was branded as a staple food for the poor Vietnamese. Mostly bought on the street, it is the sweet, crunchy fresh vegetables and herbs that make it Vietnamese.

The Vietnam War led millions of Northern refugees to flee South and it was during this time that the Bánh Mì’ came into its own. Fleeing refugees put ingredients inside their loaves for easy transportation. Obviously this was long before plastic and cardboard bags made food portable. The Vietnamese Sandwich is a cheap healthy meal, packed with flavour. The refugees eventually settled in various parts of the world and took their new found tradition with them.

Here in Nairobi, the Vietnamese Sandwich has only recently began to appear. Nothing Like it Salon and Spa, a modest coffee shop in the greater Karen area, has become an unlikely home of Vietnamese delights. While the name may be misleading, the fact that the restaurant section only opened three months ago, goes some way to explaining why they haven’t made it official yet. Its location on the second floor of the Hardy Post building, opposite Hardy Police Station in Karen, provides a terrace experience whereby the salon and spa are indoors and the restaurant and its eight tables, are located outside.

“The thing that complements our food is that there’s no dairy, hardly any oil and it has a lot of fresh herbs. That’s the whole essence of Vietnamese food and what makes it be considered among the healthiest food in the world”, the restaurant owner, Bindya Devani explains. The restaurant serves a variety of Vietnamese from the classic Pho Soup (available in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options), and those deliciously light and translucent Vietnamese Summer Rolls. The contents in Bánh Mì’ vary from restaurant to restaurant, city to city. “Ours consists of eight sauces”, Devani tells me: “meat and for the vegetarian Bánh Mì’ cheese or tofu”.

For the Vietnamese, this flaky breakfast snack is still served on the streets of Vietnam and is a deliciously textured and crunchy way to start their day. Will it become the breakfast of choice for Kenyans? Probably not but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it!

Nothing Like it Spa is located in the Hardy Shopping Centre in Karen

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