What is BáNh Mi?

Mary McMahon

Bánh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich which is famous for being extremely hearty and relatively inexpensive. In its native Vietnam, bánh mi is a common offering at many restaurants and street stalls, and in regions of the world with a large Vietnamese community, the sandwich is also extremely common. In both cases, there are a number of configurations to choose from, with ingredients which range from shredded barbecued pork to tofu, and seasoning which can be mild to intensely spicy.

Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich much like the submarine sandwich in the United States.
Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich much like the submarine sandwich in the United States.

The development of the bánh mi did not begin until the French colonized Vietnam, introducing people to the baguette, a type of long, thin, crusty French bread. The French colonists developed a sort of salad sandwich, taking advantage of locally available Vietnamese ingredients like fresh greens, pickled vegetables, and spicy chiles, and the early form of bánh mi was born. While the French have left Vietnam, the taste for bánh mi has stayed on.

Tofu can be used in banh mi.
Tofu can be used in banh mi.

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This sandwich is analogous to the submarine sandwich in the United States, which is also known as a hoagie, po' boy, hero, grinder, wedge, or Italian, among many other alternate names. However, bánh mi has a few distinctive traits which set it aside from this well known American sandwich. The first is the inclusion of classically Asian ingredients like daikon radish, coriander, pickled carrots, sriracha chili sauce, tofu, and spring onions. The second is the seasoning used on the meats, when meat is included; the meat typically has a distinctively Vietnamese feel.

Daikon is commonly used in banh mi.
Daikon is commonly used in banh mi.

Pork, beef, and chicken are all used in bánh mi, sometimes even together. The sandwich can also include ingredients like eggs for a breakfast sandwich, and ingredients like seitan, tempeh, and textured vegetable protein are not unknown in vegetarian versions. In all cases, bánh mi typically has a healthy balance of fresh greens and vegetables blended with meats.

Some people call the bánh mi a sort of kitchen sink sandwich, meaning that cooks throw in whatever they have lying around the house. Whether bánh mi is assembled from leftovers or from ingredients which are specifically purposed, it tends to be very filling, with the ingredients typically attempting to explode from the baguette. Most people are accustomed to very inexpensive bánh mi, making it a popular street food and quick meal.

Spring onions are ingredients in banh mi.
Spring onions are ingredients in banh mi.

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Discussion Comments


@alisha-- No, banh mi can be made at home. You don't have to make it the original way. I make chicken banh mi at home all the time. I just sautee thinly sliced chicken for it and add veggies and pickles.

Some people might argue that I'm ruining the banh mi this way, but I also put mayonnaise in mine. It tastes better.


There is a banh mi mobile food truck across the street from where I work in New York City. I have no idea how the banh mi in Vietnam taste, but this one tastes awesome.


@umbra21-- I don't think that bánh mi can be made at home, not the original bánh mi anyway.

I had these all the time when I visited Vietnam and almost every single one was made with several different types of pork. They usually put ham, steamed pork and even cooked pig liver in it. When all of these are put together, the sandwich becomes very hearty, tasty and complex.

We can't get so many pork varieties here in the US, unless we prepare them at home and that's going to be a lot of work. If there is a Viatnemese restaurant where you live, you might want to try bánh mi there.


@indigomoth - Some ingredients are more common than others. I mean, if you just throw anything in there, it is no longer a banh mi.

It varies slightly, but I'd say you absolutely need to have carrots, cucumber, cilantro, daikon radish, peppers and soy sauce. You can eat it with only those things and it will still be good, but most people will add some chicken or other kinds of meat that have been treated in various ways, or for a vegetarian banh mi, they might put in some tofu.

Traditionally, you use liver pate for the meat and just smear it on the bread before including all the vegetables. That's based around the original French version at least. Personally, I prefer pork, but that is up to individual taste.


@umba21 - Daikon seems to be a common ingredient, as well as onion and herbs. Also, don't let the pickled vegetables throw you off, since, in most of the recipes I've seen, that is taken to be vegetables that have been soaked in vinegar for an hour or so, not some kind of specialty ingredient.

This sandwich is really supposed to be made from whatever you've got spare in the fridge. You can throw almost anything in there, if it's a meat, or a vegetable. But there are some really good recipes online if you look for them.


@elsewhen - One of my friends has recently moved to Vietnam, so I'm hoping to have one in the most authentic place possible!

Until I can afford to go and visit though, I am kind of inspired to try and make one of these myself. It sounds like a good banh mi recipe needs to have pickled vegetables and hot peppers of some description, as well as some kind of protein (either meat or tofu or something else).


Banh Mi sandwiches are an excellent value. They taste great, are filling, and if you go to an authentic Vietnamese place to get them, you will invariably get a great price.

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