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The Saga of the Bánh Mì

While Hanoi gets all the credit for phở, touting itself as the birthplace of Vietnam's national dish, Saigon holds the distinct honor of inventing the modern-day bánh mì.

In a sweeping Roads & Kingdoms article, local writer Simon Stanley digs in to the history of Vietnam's beloved sandwich, scouring the city for Saigon's prime bánh mì spots and uncovering its past in the process.

Over dozens of sandwiches, Stanley traces the history of bánh mì back through the French colonial age, when Europeans looked down upon those who crossed culinary lines. Though French expats stuck to French cuisine and Vietnamese residents enjoyed their own culinary creations, the conflicts of 20th-century Europe managed to upend these separations and kickstart one of Vietnam's most beloved fusion foods.

“When war broke out in Europe, however, the culinary boundaries separating French food from Vietnamese would be shattered forever,” Stanley writes.

As World War I began, French colonists headed for the front lines, leaving behind a wealth of discounted French goods for Vietnamese residents to discover. Using European cold cuts, cheeses and bread, local chefs came up with their own version of casse croute – the name given to crispy French bread accompanied by meat, cheese and other fixings – and the local adaptation soon became a hit.

However it wasn't until after 1954 that the bánh mì as we know it today was born. With private business forbidden in northern Vietnam, the torch was passed to Saigon to carry on Vietnam's sandwich legacy.

The bánh mì as we know it today came from the modest Banh Mi Hoa Ma, originally on Nguyen Dinh Chieu (and still in business today), where northern-born proprietors created their own, more affordable version of France's crispy baguette, shortening the loaf of bread and swapping some of the cold cuts for more veggies to save costs.

This allowed more working-class folks to partake in the delicious Vietnamese sandwiches, helping the bánh mì to spread to other local businesses and street carts. As it grew in popularity, the owners at Hoa Ma found they could not accommodate the sheer number of diners and so began putting the ingredients inside the bread sandwich-style instead of deconstructed on a plate as was originally the tradition.

Following the American War, Vietnamese immigrants settled in Europe and North America, bringing with them the country's delectable bánh mì and introducing the world to a distinctly Vietnamese creation.

You can read the full, unabridge history of the bánh mìhere.

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