Banh mi is Vietnam's love of the French loaf

VIETNAMESE TWIST: A banh mi being prepared inside Banh Mi Phuc restaurant in Hanoi. The dish is smeared with pate and loaded with fresh coriander and cucumber, or just enjoyed with a pat of fresh butter.
Banh mi is Vietnam's love of the French loaf

FRANCE'S DELICIOUS LEGACY: A worker carries plates with baked breads at Hoan Boulangerie workshop in Hanoi.


    Sep 05, 2016

    Banh mi is Vietnam's love of the French loaf


    IT HAS been more than six decades since the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam.

    But when President Francois Hollande arrives this week, he will struggle to avoid a quintessential legacy of his country's rule: the baguette.

    Smeared with pate and loaded with fresh coriander and cucumber, or just enjoyed with a pat of fresh butter, "banh mi" is a delicious symbol of Vietnam's lasting links with its former occupiers.

    "The French were very proud of banh mi. I think French cuisine has had a lot of influence on Vietnamese cuisine," said baker Nguyen Ngoc Hoan from his busy boulangerie in Hanoi's French Quarter.

    He started baking banh mi - which refers to plain bread or the popular "petit pain" loaded with meat, vegetables or fried egg - in 1987.

    Five years later, he got a stint at the bakery in the storied Metropole hotel, built by the French at the turn of the 20th century.

    The sandwich has become a foodie favourite in hipster enclaves around the globe, sold from food trucks and sipped with craft beer in both its classic form and new varieties.

    Mr Hoan started his career baking what he called Vietnamese bread - airy on the inside, crusty on the outside.

    But after training with a French baker in Shanghai, he decided to switch to the denser French style.

    Now, he churns out thousands of warm baguettes daily, along with croissants, creme caramel and homemade pate.

    French bread was first made in Vietnam to feed hungry soldiers in Indochina, France's empire which spanned much of South-east Asia from 1858 to its crushing defeat in the Dien Bien Phu battle in Vietnam in 1954.

    Most French who came to Vietnam were not interested in low-level jobs like baking.

    To fill the gap, the Chinese and Vietnamese worked in boulangeries.

    "By 1910, little baguettes or 'petit pain' were sold in the street to (Vietnamese) people who were on their way to work," according to Erica Peters, food historian and author of Appetites And Aspirations In Vietnam.

    In the years that followed, meat, vegetables or fish appeared in the bread - precursors to the modern-day banh mi sold all over Hanoi.

    Other culinary influences leaked in too. Local cooks used meat scraps and unused bones from French butchers to create pho - the national dish of beef or chicken noodle soup, according to Ms Peters.

    Coffee and creme caramel are other examples.

    The ubiquity of those influences will not be lost on President Hollande, who arrives today for talks with Vietnam's leadership and French businessmen.

    Today, Vietnam's commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City, is dotted with chic cafes serving croque monsieur and macarons at Paris prices.

    But the affordable banh mi still rules Hanoi's street food scene.

    "I don't know and don't care whether it's French, I just serve it like this," said Nguyen Thi Duc Hanh, sitting in front of her shop as the lunchtime rush begins.

    She sells hundreds per day and keeps her menu simple: banh mi served with pate and a fried egg, beef steak or her very own version of "boeuf au vin" made with local spices.

    One of her regulars, Nguyen Van Binh, said he has been eating banh mi for 50 years.

    "Banh mi came from France but it was changed and adapted to suit Vietnamese tastes," said Mr Binh, before digging into his fried egg and pate served with a crusty roll.