Sunday, March 18, 2007

Travel Snacks: The Banh Mi

Today and tomorrow will be my last reports from Vietnam. :( Yes, this special series is coming to an end. This is my 14th report on my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. Return tomorrow for my final report and, as always, check my archives under the Travel labels for past reports.As I wind down my special reports from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, I can't go without talking about the banh mi, the ubiquitous sandwich that's found all over the streets and inside restaurants trying to imitate the street vendors.

I get the Vietnamese sandwich (that's what they're called outside Vietnam and in the Bay Area) often for lunch because of the low price, only $2.50 in Oakland. And the characteristics are always crunchy French baguette, meat pieces, pickled vegetables, and spicy mayonnaise sauce. And also something hot like jalapeno slices and something cool like cilantro.
In Vietnam, I found that the original didn't sway too far from what I get in California. But it was different on some fronts. For example, while the bread was extremely crusty and consistently good at virtually every street seller (they must all buy from the same bakery), it was a bit shorter than what's used in the Bay Area. I'd say it's maybe about 2 to 3 inches shorter. Also, the banh mi I got in Saigon/HCMC was a lot more spicier! Everyone made their sandwiches slightly different. Some used a mayonnaise that's sweetened and spicy, but most people used what looked like a vinagrette that they slathered on and it was very spicy. What's funny is that they don't ask if you want it spicy or not, apparently everyone likes it that way. (Or, maybe they figured out I was a tourist and thought, hmmm, let's give this American something to remember.)
The banh mi sellers can be found in the morning to night. But primarily they're sold in the afternoon as an after work snack as people ate them to tie them over until dinner. They were life savers for me when I spent all day walking around and needed a quick bite but didn't know where to go. I could always count on a banh mi that'll only cost me between 50 cents to $1. I'd often buy one and take it back to my hotel to eat. In the Mekong Delta, you can even find them at the floating markets!
The making of the banh mi is pretty simple. They'll start by slicing the bread, and then giving you a choice of meat or pate. (They'd always push the pate because it's a bit more expensive but I can't stand the idea of grounded meat.) Then they add some pickled vegetables and herbs (not as much as the ones in the states I noticed) and then added the spicy sauce. All the banh mi sellers were always very friendly. They post what they're selling on signs on their stands. So just point to the one that you want. If you don't recognize any of the words for beef, chicken or pork, then just point to the ingredients in front of you. It's the perfect fast-food.

Postscript Saigon: Fruits of Vietnam

It was fun exploring the many markets of Vietnam and seeing the fruits, even during what I thought was their winter. Because of the warm (oh so warm) weather, you see a lot of tropical fruits. Some of them reminded me of my childhood in Hawaii, including papayas, pineapples and mountain apples. But there were far more exotic fruits such as mangosteen (primarily from Thailand), dragon fruit (tastes like a kiwi) and durian. But my favorite looking fruit that I thought was so beautiful and unusual was the rambutan. This fruit looked like a spiky golf ball, more like something you'd see in the sea (yeah, like a sea urchin). But it is actually more like the lychee fruit, with a hard red shell but inside is a pure white meaty fruit that's sweet. I vote for the rambuntan as the most exotic and beautiful fruit around.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think Rambutan is originally from Indonesia. For "Rambut" in Indonesia means hair, so Rambutan means hairy or fruit with hair. They have many variety of Rambutan, some sweet, some a bit sour, some have juicy meat, some a bit dry, some easily peeled off, some not. One of them famously known as Rambutan Gundul (bald rambutan) for the hair on the fruit skin are very short, almost like small pimples.