Banh mi: A migration story wrapped in a fluffy bread roll

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Sydney, Australia (SBS): Next time you bite into a Vietnamese banh mi, hear the crunch of the flaky baguette and feel the sweet and sour mix of ingredients dance in your mouth, there’s one thing to note: the banh mi is not just a humble pork roll.

As Anh Nguyen – Museums Victoria research associate and former child refugee – says, the banh mi reveals a powerful story of Vietnamese migration and entrepreneurial refugee ingenuity.

“Food is tied to history,” she says, “so it’s an easy cultural transmitter to show how one culture has integrated into another.”

Nguyen explains that the banh mi was a product of European colonialism in Vietnam in the late-1800s. When the French entered Vietnam, they brought with them their love of bread and influenced local food habits.

Then, with World War One came the importation of European goods into Vietnam. “The Germans were important importers of European goods for bread making into Vietnam. They made the ingredients highly accessible. That’s when local entrepreneurs really started to make [European] food themselves, like bread.”
But it wasn’t until the 1950s when the banh mi really developed into the consumer snack it is now. When many Vietnamese refugees fled the communists in the north and moved south in 1954, they moved to a much hotter climate. “The banh mi emerged as a popular food to make over pho from the north because it was so hot in the south.”

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Needing to make a new start in a new part of Vietnam, many refugees started selling banh mi in Saigon “because of its economic efficiency as a street food”

Nguyen explains that a similar thing happened when Vietnamese from the south came to Australia as refugees from the Vietnam War. Vietnamese bakeries were soon established in Australia in the 1980s in the areas surrounding the hostels where Vietnamese refugees first lived like Cabramatta and Bankstown in Sydney and Footscray in Melbourne.

“They used the same enterprising spirit that they used after being pushed out of north Vietnam, having to create some sort of livelihood. So one of the efficiency foods to be produced here was banh mi. It was the first dish in our street food culture to be carried over from Vietnam to Australia.”

Ha Phun, Manager of the Hong Ha Bakery in the Sydney suburb of Mascot, tells SBS her family set up its bakery in 1986 after her dad first immigrated to Australia as a refugee.

She says her dad, an engineer who used to work on ships back in Vietnam, never had any experience of baking when he came out to Australia. “He initially worked in a factory but he was tired of doing shift-work so he wanted something with better hours,” says Phun, who’s worked at the family-owned bakery for around 20 years.
Back then, banh mi wasn’t really popular in Australia and there was only one other bakery on the street. Over 30 years later, she says, and how times have changed. Vietnamese bakeries are plentiful and Vietnamese cuisine is a household staple.

“Banh mi is 80 per cent of what we sell here in the bakery. People love banh mi…And I still eat them every day. You have to try them, to test if the seasoning is right. My workers eat them every day as well.”