When the French landed in Vietnam two centuries ago, the first culinary thing they taught the natives was the baguette—without which no Frenchman, missionary or soldier, could have endured Southeast Asia. Miraculously, on its own merit, the baguette survived the demise of colonialism, the Indochina War, World Wars I and II, the Japanese occupation, the American-Vietnam War, and even the crushing, dark decade known as the New Life Era. It endured not just in Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. It rose to staple status, priced comparably to local rice and noodles, accessible to all, including the poor.
Today, the best baguettes are found in Vietnam, followed by Cambodia, Laos, and some sections of Thailand along the Mekong River where Vietnamese refugees settled. It's not unusual to see people eating a plain baguette alongside a bowl of pho, meat stew, curries, or even rice. The baguette's main purpose, however, has always been to be the vehicle and the canvas for the sandwich.
Since colonial times bread was bought from bakeries or from door-to-door peddlers, and sandwiches were made at home or sold in French-styles deli-es in big cities such as Hanoi, Hue and Saigon. The commercial baguette sandwich for the poor and low middle-class population did not come into existence until after the 1954 Geneva Accord which divided Vietnam and displaced millions. As refugees and immigrants (immigrants because Vietnam had just became two separate countries) fled the Communist North and streamed into Saigon, jobs grew scarce. Unemployed and desperate, folks opened small shops and sold food on the street. Early would-be entrepreneurs opened ill-fated noodle houses serving pho, a northern noodle soup which took nearly a decade to win over the southerners' palate. A few turned to the baguette.
The first memorable sandwich kiosk popped up in front of Saigon Main Post Office and became an instant hit—people still remember it today. Within months, poor immigrants, with little more than a few pieces of wood, a bread basket, a few bowls of ingredients, and a clay charcoal BBQ, could set up a little food stand. Suddenly, people replicated dozens of sandwich stands all over the city. Once it spread to the provinces, people began calling the new food banh mi Saigon—the Saigon Sub, as in “fancy city food”.
The unprecedented social upheaval at the end of the Indochina War (French-Vietnam) propelled Saigon Sub's ascendancy with several favorable factors. It was a time of great change, and people were accepting of newness, particularly when they had no choice. Hundreds of thousands went from cooking in their home kitchen to living in crowded squalor and eating inexpensive street meals. The migrated northern rich became poor with the loss of their land, home, and work. The southern poor became rich as land price in the south skyrocketed and with it the cost of housing. As the two very different cultures clashed (the north, strict and formal; the south, gregarious, friendly and informal) so did the respective cuisines. At the beginning, displaced northerners had no choice but to eat southern food because they basically arrived in the south with little more than what they could physically carry. Later, it was the southerners who, out of curiosity, started sampling all the new dishes that the northerners cooked for their communities.
Banh mi Saigon found a sweet spot as something both northerners and southerners could appreciate. It had egalitarian appeal. Educated Viet Francophile had always eaten the baguette sandwich because it was French. Laborers and students became devotees because banh mi Saigon was one of the few meals they could buy and eat on the move (Note that in traditional northern culture, it was considered uncouth to walk and eat at the same time like a child). Even the the poor were drawn because unlike noodles and rice plates, these sandwiches had a sliding price scale that made them affordable to all.
Popular sandwiches were sweetened condensed milk (for young children); cha lua (Vietnamese meat cake); fried eggs; cold cuts (ham, headcheese, paté), grilled meats, Chinese-style BBQ pork (usually pork belly for the prized fat), and xiu mai (Chinese pork meatballs). Because banh mi refers to bread as well as sandwich, it was necessary, when ordering, to state the type of sandwich, for instance, banh mi thit ngoui nguoi (bread with cold cuts). It was also necessary to state how much one wanted to spend for said sandwich (think of it as a name-your-price type of transaction). The price determined the amount of fillings. In general, a deluxe rich-man sandwich could cost as much as four times the basic every-man sandwich. More money translated to more fillings. In rice countries, meat was luxury, fat was decadence.
Squatting quietly at the other end of the spectrum, the “flavored” sandwiches (aka beggar's banh mi) commonly bought by the very poor embodies, however anemically, the same flavor profile as that of the rich-man sandwich. This was simply a baguette drizzled with a few spoonfuls of pork gravy from xiu mai (Chinese meatballs), a squirt of soy-vinegar sauce, a pinch of pickled radish and carrots, chili peppers, a few sprigs of cilantro, and a light brush of butter which in tandem with the aforementioned gravy produced the rounded fatty taste, reminiscent of expensive meats.
Pricey or cheap, all Saigon subs share four defining components: (1) a crackly loaf with a soft chewy center; (2) a modest amount of fat; (3) some crunch and green herbs to convey a sense of garden freshness, and (4) a tangy sauce which may include chili peppers to bind everything.
First, the bread, usually served as a demi-baguette, is airy, moderately chewy, with a crunchy, crackly crust. Some mistaken the Saigon Sub to be a warm creation because it is common to see a vendor lightly toasting baguettes over coals before making sandwiches. The “toasting” is meant to “awaken” the baguettes which are more fragile than their Parisian cousins. Viet baguettes differ slightly from region to region and are made with either just wheat or a blend of wheat and a little rice flours (in SE Asia, rice is cheaper than wheat), resulting in a fluffy center with a thinner crust which quickly degrades within a few hours, especially in the tropical humidity. The light “toasting” is necessary to revitalize the bread.
Second, butter, meat gravy, and/or pâté provide the rounded fatty taste which is the key in making this protein poor sandwich so pleasing to the palate. To distinguish themselves, a handful of places even make classic French mayonnaise, hand-whipped in small batches. These fats are necessary ingredients as there is traditionally very little meat in the sandwich. In fact, Saigon subs taste better with less meat. It is common to see the lower priced shops offering julienne cha lua or BBQ meat—on the order of 1 single tablespoon per sandwich.
Third, daikon-carrot pickle, cilantro, and cucumber provide the perfect blend of vegetable crunch and garden freshness, conveying a brightness that belies the sandwich's simplicity. Fussy, perishable ingredients like lettuce or tomatoes have no place in the Saigon subs.
Last, the tangy sauce is the little magic that binds everything. Each shop likes to make its own version, with the soy-sauce and rice vinegar combination being the most common. A few uses Maggi sauce directly from the bottle. Some add a little Sriracha sauce or mashed chili peppers for a little extra zing.
It is worth noting that all ingredients can survive many hours unrefrigerated in the tropical climate. This, of course, came from sandwich's humble street roots. In the modern kitchen, however, it becomes one of those fantastic backup food that can be kept almost indefinitely. The baguette, when tightly sealed in plastic, keeps well in the freezer. Canned clarified butter and pate keeps for years in the cupboard. Fresh cilantro and chili peppers can be kept for two weeks in the the refrigerator when wrapped in paper towel and stored in plastic bags. Both cilantro and chili peppers are easily grown year round in pots.
Not only did the Saigon sub survived in Vietnam, it was carried across the world by the Vietnamese diaspora in the wake of the Vietnam War (or rather Vietnam-American War). It first surfaced in the early 80's in two Little Saigons in California, San Jose and Garden Grove. By the mid 90's, this little sandwich gained footholds in major metropolises in Europe, North America, and Australia. By the turn of the millennium, it was elevated to hi-so strata by a new generation of chefs, mostly US-born Vietnamese Americans (and a few who landed stateside as infants with their families), purveying superbly creative variations on this street food—only the young bloods lacked the memories and had the daring to envisioned it in new ways for themselves. In 2011, it struck prime time on the Food Network with Nom Nom, a team that took second place in The Great Food Truck Race. By 2013, in the big cities, it's safe to say the Saigon sub is definitely toeing the mainstream.
For me, the Saigon sub is linked to memories dating back to that very first kiosk in front of the Saigon Main Post Office, though by the time I munched on one as a boy, the kiosk had been in business for a decade and a half. My parents were faithful to this vendor because they had patronized his shop since their courtship days. It became one of the regular stops for our Saturday family picnics until South Vietnam collapsed.
A tumultuous decade passed before I saw the Saigon sub again. By then I was a junior in high school, living in California with my family. A Vietnamese sandwich shop named Ba Le opened in San Jose and became wildly popular among Vietnamese Americans. A friend brought me a Saigon sub for lunch one day. I remembered holding it like an old memorabilia.
Disorientation struck with the first bite. Some part of me leaped back over the years, across the hardships, the perilous ocean journey, the concentration camp, the Fall of Saigon, the war. I knew the flavors so well, they were like newly found tethers to lost memories. It was as if I was looking at the child me. There I was, five years old, pedaling my red bicycle down the long street to buy a baguette for my mother—my first big trip without training wheels. There I was sitting in primary French class with a growling stomach and staring at the clock in agony waiting for the moment when I could run out the school gate and buy the sandwich for which I had saved a week's worth of allowance. Then, there we were sitting on the step of the cathedral, my best friend and I chomping on our Saigon subs.
Since its re-entry into my diet, I've eaten more Saigon subs than any other sandwich. In college, I survived on them because they cost $1 apiece, with many places offering buy 3 get 1 free. When I lived in in the jungle on the edge of the backwaters behind nowhere, I bought an oven and learned how to bake bread and make pâté just so I could eat proper Saigon subs regularly.
After reading about the NYC gourmet Viet sandwich trend, I created a two gourmet subs of my own: the Big Buddha (a vegan special of fried tofu, hummus, cilantro, red bell peppers, lime juice, and cucumber) and the Chimi Cowboy (grilled steak strips, onions, butter, cucumber, and chimichuri sauce). Though normally, when I crave an Saigon sub, I'm seeking neither novel flavor profiles nor culinary enlightenment. What I long for is the memories of eating these subs on the streets of Saigon, Hoi An, Vientiane, Silnoukville, and all those hot dusty towns in between.
The following recipe was first published in my cookbook diary A Culinary Odyssey.
Classic Saigon Sub
1 baguette (or 2 demi-baguette totaling 20"-24" long)
4 slices of ham
2 slices of headcheese (optional)
4 slices of Vietnamese cha lua (optional, pork cake steamed in banana leaves)
1 cup do chua (pickled carrot & daikon, see recipe)
4 spring onions, cut lengthwise and into 2 ” segments (optional)
¼ yellow onion, sliced (optional)
cilantro, cut into 2" lengths
1 cucumber, cut into long, finger-thick lengths
1-3 jalapeno peppers, sliced thinly
butter (or clarified butter)
4 oz pâté
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp soy sauce
Warm baguette in toaster oven. Cut to open baguette lengthwise (not all the way through)
Slather butter on one side and pâté on the other.
Layer ham on one side and cha lua on the other.
Pack all the remaining ingredients into the center.
Drizzle some of the sauce mix into the center.
Cut into halves and serve.
Variations on the classic Saigon subs are easy and fun to make. Here are some optional ingredients and combinations I've tried with success.
other optional fillings & ingredients
salami, pepperoni, prosciutto
cold cuts, chicken, turkey, roast beef
grilled chicken breast, meatloaf
grilled pork loin, Chinese BBQ pork
pan-fried/grilled portabella mushroom
fresh/grilled bell peppers
feta cheese, olives, chopped celery
Sriracha chili sauce mixed with mayonnaise (1:1 ratio)
Maggi sauce, olive oil
balsamic vinegar or mirin
chimichuri sauce (Argentinian)
fresh sweet basil, fresh mint, bean sprouts, alfalfa sprouts
pickled cucumber/dills (if do chua is unavailable)
Pickled Carrots & Daikon (Do Chua)
1 lb carrot, washed and peeled
1 lb daikon radish, washed and peeled
4 Thai chili (optional)
2 cups rice vinegar
2 cups warm water
2 tsp salt (preferrably kosher salt)
½ cup sugar
2 16-oz pickling jars, cleaned, and rinsed with boiling water (Glass spaghetti sauce jars with plastic lids can be used. If lids are metal, use plastic cling wrap as a barrier between jar and lid.)
Divide both carrot and daikon into two equal portions. Keep the two portions separate as they will go into separate pickling jars.
Use a mandoline to shred one portion of carrot and daikon. Mix carrot and daikon shreds and wash with clean drinking water.
Cut the carrot and daikon into 3" batons as thick as chopsticks. Mix carrot and daikon batons and wash with clean drinking water.
Put 2 chili into each jar. Put shreds into one jar. Put batons into another jar.
Pour brine mix into both jars, dividing equally.
If brine does not completely cover carrots and daikon, mix more vinegar and water in 1:1 ratio and add until there is enough to submerge the ingredients.
Store in refrigerator. Ready to eat in 3 days.
This simple version will produce two types of pickled carrots and daikons: shreds and batons. The pickled shreds are ideal for using in fish sauce mixes for dipping food. The pickled batons are best for Vietnamese sandwiches, salad rolls, and dry noodle dishes. These pickles can be kept up to a month in the refrigerator.