The burgeoning banh-mi

The banh-mi or Vietnamese style roll, as we commonly call it, is a quasi-provincial mixture of ingredients that on their own merits are mere and unsubstantial, yet as a sum of their parts you have a delicious storm of fragrant and powerful flavours competing for the hog’s share of your tastebud market.

The reappropriated term Banh-mi has many physical nuances within the Australian culinary landscape. Some with lots of salad others with a to-the-book selection, every now and then you get no pate – a blasphemous act in the eyes of gourmands. What is not doubted is the presence of meat, pickles, a salad of garnishes such as coriander, shallots and the option of chilli. This option of chilli often seems to be the defining moment of whether a pork roll has any kind of connection to the Asian sub-continent, an interesting fundament indeed.

What banh-mi does unequivocally mean is bread, in it’s original Vietnamese vernacular, but let us be honest, it is so much more than that.

It is common knowledge that the topic of our little yarn is a Vietnamese export, but what may not be so readily known is it’s origins are one of the great examples of fusion cooking. The tumultuous journey of the elongated ‘wich begins in Europe before making a cross-continental jump under the guise of an unwanted occupation.

The French occupation of the Indochina Peninsula brought with it much pain and suffering for the people of the region, with a long and arduous battle for control carrying on to 1954. With their occupation, the French did not forget to bring their culture and custom and if one were to trivialise it all with a silver lining the delights of pate and the baguette would have to be mentioned.

Some time in the 1940s, baguettes with whatever fillings, usually meat and pate, were sold to the upper-class French colonials and their entourage, likely a remedy for homesickness. These sangas, thanks to the baguette they existed in carried the name “pain de mie”, the term used for soft, crusted white bread. The contents of these early between bread snacks is rumoured to be simply pate or meat.

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Yet as most social trends do, the demand for the sandwiches precipitated to the lower classes. Xe Banh Mi, literally ‘vehicle selling bread’ was the resulting culinary option, where sandwiches would be prepared roadside. As the popularity for these vehicle-wiches grew, the original sellers of the baguette faded and so did the simplicity of their ingredients. By the 1960s, the aforementioned tricycle set-ups were the primary ‘bread-rollers’ in the country with the range of fillings as diverse as their owner’s, making a definitive description for the banh-mi a hard pig to catch.

As the United States exited at the end of the Vietnam War, so too did many Vietnamese immigrants searching for a new life away from the scars left by the 20 year conflict. A nice portion of these home seekers landed in Australia, bringing with them the features of their much-loved cuisine.

“Vietnamese food is a blend of sweet, savoury, salty & spicy and the banh-mi has all these qualities,” said Cuong, part owner of Wollongong’s new Banh-mi spot Bakery Boys.

The banh-mi offers a vicarious representation of not only Vietnamese cuisine but also the nation’s sub-culture in Australia, and it’s now welcome place amongst our fast food cultures. The banh-mi shop now contends with the likes of the chicken shop, and the fish n’ chippy as a quick and economical lunch provider. In a world of $22 hamburgers and similar priced salads, the banh-mi index has managed to keep it’s cost under a mean of ten bucks.

Then, the architecture of the banh-mi allows it to be “eaten on the run” which is “perfect because of the shape of the roll, you can hold it in 1 hand and every bite is a variety of flavours,” says Cuong.

These qualities are no doubt the genesis of the roll’s burgeoning popularity, a trend that the Bakery Boys and other new businesses are becoming an integral part of. Their fresh façade itself is a moniker for the banh-mi’s rise from bakery side order to establishment backbone.

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One need only take a look at the queue of hungry supporter’s at Marrickville Pork Roll in Sydney, or the clustering of crackle fiends inside gustation destination Mr Crackles to realise what the people of the east coast want.

That said, many people have their own particular romance with our topic of choice. Some are devoted to a crispy piece of pig, others aligned to the rich nuance provided by the pate and then there are a few who cannot fathom the roll without it’s herbaceous garnishes.

“Not all banh mi are created equal,” said Bao of recently opened Soups N Subs in Crown Mall.

“In my opinion, the perfect banh mi should have a crunch on the outside but also very soft and fluffy on the inside. The filling should have veggies that are fresh and crisp as well as sweet and sour pickles. The meat should also have great sauces to compliment it.”

Local pork roll die-hard Dylan Felton recently confessed his contagious adoration for the in-mall purveyor’s Pork Belly Sub citing the fresh and tasty ingredients as the carrot to his regular returning donkey.

“It’s fresh and it’s tasty and I’m always wanting another,” said Felton on his lunch hour. If this young man’s passion for the pork edition is anything to go by, Babe’s time in the city might be better spent in the oven.

But is there more to the pork roll than it’s delicious demeanor? Beyond the flattering flavours that have come to distinguish the comestible from it’s brethren breads, the surroundings from which they are prepared may play a part in the featured food’s success. A simple cold bain-marie holds ‘all that will be’ within a tongs reach. The onlooker eagerly watches and waits, their anticipation rising like the scorching heat of a prepped oven. It is a true spectacle of the everyday, for which an appreciation can only grow.

Why do you love banh-mi?

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