Whenever I explore the streets of Vietnam and Little Saigon neighborhoods, a thousand tasty snacks beckon. Sticky rice with coconut, tropical fruit smoothies, and deep-fried dumplings vie for my attention, but I inevitably give in to an itinerant banh mi vendor with his or her wares beautifully displayed or a bustling Vietnamese bakery or deli advertising the sandwiches. I step up to the cart or counter and say, “Mot o banh mi dac biet” to order one sandwich with the works.
The dac biet originated in and around Saigon, the city where I was born. Friends of my father recall seeing the dac biet around the early 1940s in Saigon. It was a delicous, exciting street food to them back then as it is to me today.
For about a dollar in Vietnam and less than a bowl of pho abroad, I get to ingest Vietnamese history and culture. The bread, condiments, and some of the meats are the legacy of French and Chinese colonialism but in its entirety, the beloved and ubiquitous banh mi is 100 percent Viet. Adopting and reinventing foreign foodways is part of the amalgam that defines Vietnamese cuisine. Banh mi beautifully melds East and West, as evidenced by the unusual juxtaposition of ingredients that go into each sandwich.