We got a lot of positive feedback about our little tapas history bite last week. So when looking at our bánh mì box this week, I was actually giddy at the prospect of digging deeper into the history. Let’s just get this out there, I’m a huge nerd. If you ever see the red headed guy delivering your Love Boxes, that’s me (Mike). You could get me talking for hours about the history and nuance of various foods. So let’s dig right in.
Vietnam’s food history is very deeply rooted in complex political history. By the late 19th century, French colonists had completely taken rule of Vietnam. Naturally with the colonists came their tastes and desires for foods from back home. It was incredibly expensive to ship everything over, so instead they brought with them livestock and agricultural practices. Coffee grew quite well, as did almost everything else. The one thing they couldn’t get to grow was wheat, which had to be imported. This made the Western bread sandwiches of the French exclusive to the rich and more specifically the colonists.
Cue the First World War. A large influx of French troops to Vietnam meant a large influx of French goods, which made French baguettes more readily available—but still, the use of the baguette was still very French. In fact, the Vietnamese were prohibited from changing French recipes.
But the war caused wheat shortages, and Vietnamese bakers began modifying baguette recipes regardless to use the more readily available rice flour instead. This made the baguettes fluffier than a traditional French baguette.
After the fall of the French at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, Vietnam was partitioned into North and South Vietnam. Thousands of refugees from North Vietnam flooded into the south and laid the groundwork for the creation of the beautiful bánh mì we know today. Lê Minh Ngọc and Nguyễn Thị Tịnh formed a bakery called Hòa Mã and started selling the first bánh mì sandwiches. They were the first to put the ingredients inside the bun to make it more portable. Hòa Mã is still open to this day, and it’s still owned by the same family.
So how did it get so popular? The Vietnam War was right around the corner, and as thousands of Vietnamese people fled the conflict, they brought with them this tasty sandwich. Only it’s not just a sandwich: bánh mì is a symbol of cultural resilience, rebellion, and creativity.
I find so much beauty in food, and it only gets more beautiful when you learn its history. Starting this week, I'll be putting together little snippets of food history or fun facts to share with you, so you can join me in appreciating the long histories of the foods we love. I hope you enjoy these History Bites!