Inside the Banh mi

November 21st, 2014 | Posted by greg in Daily life... | Travel

Another great trip to Ho Chi Minh City had me finally taking a much closer look at the infamous Bánh mì, the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich born from the French colonial occupation. A simple preparation in which all sorts of meat, pate, melted “butter”, spring onion and other vegetables are stuffed in a thin-crusted pillow-like baguette. Wendy, our friendly guide for the day, organized a well-deserved pit-stop at one of the shop selling excellent Bánh mì on the street side of Saigon.

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A stand on the road side serving the Banh Mi

Several people have been telling me about how amazing the Bánh mì baguette is in Vietnam. So let’s put things straight here: a “normal” baguette and the Bánh mì baguette are two different things from a baker standpoint. The second point we need to put straight is the rice flour myth. Alledgedly, adding rice flour to your baguette makes it lighter. Sorry to break it to you, but rice flour has no gluten, and if you use it in your baguette recipe to a somewhat high percentage, you will end up with a dense brick which is the opposite of what you are looking for in your perfect Bánh mì baguette.

Most Bánh mì stalls on the road side are getting their bread from big central bakeries and the stall staff would then finish the sandwiches at the roadside booth. If you can find shops with their own baking station, it’s already a well-established Bánh mì shop as this kind of small baking structure are a fairly big investment in comparison with the items sold, i.e. bread and pastries. The average price of a normal sandwich is about HK$4.6 (US$0.6) and the portion is fairly large (even for a big guy like me!), perfect for any time of the day I’d actually say. This is the price of the fully stuffed Bánh mì I had and of course the shop has to make its money too, controlling cost of ingredients versus selling cost.

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The fluffy and puffed baguettes

The flour used is made of wheat and has a content of 10% to 12% protein; you can take a look at InterFlour Vietnam flours which is widely used along the more local “Bông lúa vàng” or “Bình Đông”. The bowl of “butter” you see on the photos is being spread on the bread of each serving, it was actually hydrogenated vegetable fat with butter aroma. You could taste it, but I also saw the actual cans of fat on the floor, near the counter. So in a word, ingredients used are not the finest around, but hey, it’s part of the package, just like when you eat your Char Siu Bau! The texture of the crust and crumb, the openings on the bread and the color of the crust were typical of bread over-proofed on steroid, a.k.a on emulsifier, bread improver or however you want to call it. Using these chemically produced agents makes the dough easily workable in machines, extends the shelf life and the volume of the bread, read the pillow-like texture. Emulsifiers are conditioning the dough and strengthening the dough, thus it results in a VERY solid inner structure of the sponge where the CO2 produced is retained in a perfectly sealed sponge, as opposed to regular dough where the CO2 would eventually escape from the weaker part of the inner sponge.

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Typical small bakery setup on the road side.

  • me: ” Are people using bread improver here?”
  • X: “Yes, of course! Do you use it as well?”
  • me: “No…. we don’t….”
  • X: “eh? how do you bake bread then??”
  • me: *smiling*

So, no high quality wheat flour, no real butter… but of course, who cares! The Vietnamese Bánh mì is insanely good and satisfying and I absolutely LOVED it! No wonder it is continuously named as one of the best street food in the world! Bánh mì is part of Vietnamese food culture, of its heritage and to me, it is in itself a representation of what the country has been through and of what the country and its people is today: A country full of  life-loving and kind people, embracing every day in showcasing to the world how amazing Vietnam is.

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My sandwich being stuffed!

This article was published on Asia Tatler Dining, check it out here!

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7 Responses

  • Banh mi is awonderful chef full regards

  • Pingback: A second serving of chocolate - Gregoire Michaud

  • R says:

    Hey man, sweet blog and love your books. I have to admit I’m a real sucker for the bread in these rolls. I know it’s full of conditioner but it has its purposes and in this case i thinks it’s agreeable, the thin crust that ends up all over the front of you as you take your first bite. Dayum.

    • greg says:

      Thanks! Agree, I also loved it while eating my bhan mi! ;)
      I guess it’s like everything else in life, it’s all a matter of balance!
      Cheers, Gregoire

  • Mark W. paine says:

    hello sir, you’re right about the rice flour in the dough. makes it too heavy and it doesn’t brown well. i only use the rice flour in part to shape the dough, as it has less absorbency than wheat. it creates a nice outer crust, a bit grainy too. i use high gluten and all-purpose flour, half and half. it also helps to add more water to the dough than the recipe requires, but only after the gluten structure has been well developed in the mixing process, or rather, added during the tail end of said process. this makes the dough a bit floppy but that’s where the rice flour comes in. also it helps to watch the proof, and bake slightly underproofed, coating generously with steam (mist) in the first five to ten minutes. for home bakers the biggest difficulties are proper shaping and slashing, proper proof equipment, and steam during the baking period without losing temperature dramatically. thank you very much for your column, i respect and love your work. banh mi are extremely versatile…any vegan or vegetarian styles you know of?

    • greg says:

      Wow, thanks you for your baking insight on added rice flour to regular baking. It’s very interesting actually.
      I haven’t come across vegan or vegetarian version of the banh mi, but I’m sure with Vietnam ingredients and sauces and fresh herbs it is definitely possible to make superb alternative to the meaty version!



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