Notable Sandwiches #7: Bánh Mì
Talking culinary colonialism with food critic and sandwich expert Soleil Ho
The bánh mì—a notable sandwich if ever there was one—is a product of colonialism and its attendant violence. In America, the sandwich is also a product of war, displacement, exile, immigration and the hungry genius of those who make lives anew. It’s a sandwich that carries the weight of history between the pillowy halves of a split Vietnamese-style baguette.
“Bánh mì,” in Vietnamese, simply means “wheat bread,” and can also serve as a stand-in for any sandwich varietal, not just the singular, delicious cilantro-daikon-pork-and-paté staple of Vietnamese restaurants in the United States. Vietnam is an outlier among Asian countries in having leavened bread as a staple food, which is a direct result of French colonization, cemented in a brutal 30-year struggle from 1857 to 1887 that culminated in the establishment of French Indochina, a colony that encompassed Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The colonial administration was extractive, and Vietnam’s economic development through the end of French rule in 1954 served chiefly to benefit the occupiers and a tiny, wealthy slice of the native populace. The rest got little. Among the little they got was wheat bread, brought over from the land of the baguette and alchemized, through indigenous cuisine and tropical weather, into the light, crusty loaf that envelops the sandwich we know today. The bánh mì started as a French jambon-beurre (baguette, ham, butter) or a baguette with pâté; daikon and pickled carrot and cilantro and spice filled out austere simplicity and changed it for good.
If the bánh mì of Saigon and Hanoi represents the peculiar alchemy of a colonized people choosing and changing a legacy forced on them at gunpoint, the bánh mì of the United States is a product of another long, cruel war, and a mass exodus from subsequent privation. First popularized in the United States after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 drove a wave of Vietnamese immigration to America, the sandwich spread across the States from Southern California, pioneered by a refugee food-truck operator named Lê Văn Bá and his sons. In its current fad-food form, streamlined for mass consumption, the sandwich generally follows a highly particular formula, but within Vietnamese communities themselves the term is more plastic.
To gain insight into the sandwich—and into the life of a glamorous powerhouse of food media—I spoke to Soleil Ho, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Ho, the former cohost of the social-commentary-laced food podcast Racist Sandwich, has written about both her childhood love of the bánh mì and her complicated relationship with the French colonization of Vietnam—starting with her own name, which is French for “sun.”
“My name used to give me a lot of grief,” she wrote, in her unsparing and thoughtful review of colonist-chic restaurant Le Colonial in San Francisco. “France was always an object of fascination for my mother, as a place of unparalleled sophistication and elegance, of haute cuisine and couture. Once I learned more about the history of France in Vietnam, I had trouble reconciling the France in my mother’s mind with the one that had transformed her country into Indochina. My name was a constant reminder of that relationship.”
I spoke to Soleil while she was on the road from LA back to San Francisco, about the history of the bánh mì—in Vietnam, and in her own life—and about her career as a food critic. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Talia Lavin: The bánh mì has become such a popular sandwich in the United States, but it has a unique background in Vietnam. What can you tell me about its history?
Soleil Ho: It’s my understanding that the French brought bakeries and European-style bread to Vietnam during the colonial era, when Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were, to a greater or lesser degree, Indochina. And as they’re wont to do, colonialists brought technologies and food from home. Innovations in charcuterie and meat preservation were brought over as well: paté, certain hams, kind of headcheese-type recipes that are all involved with bánh mì. It started with the French; the French were looking for bread that they could have access to, and the Vietnamese at the time indigenized it in many different ways. I know that there are some bakers in Vietnam that use rice flour as part of the dry mix for the bread, and it creates a loaf that’s a lot lighter and a lot crisper. Those are the things you look for in a good bánh mì. It’s not a French style baguette; it’s not naturally leavened either—they often use baking powder or another helper ingredient, because fermentation in Vietnam is dicey. It’s so muggy and so hot that things would get out of hand if you let it go sourdough style.
There are so many varieties of the bánh mì—roast pork, chicken, meatball, flank steak. But there’s an idealized version, a sort of standard that anything else is understood as a deviation from. What is the legacy of the bánh mì in your own life? What does the sandwich evoke for you?
I think about how—on a personal level—I grew up with my grandparents, who taught me Vietnamese as my first language, and I didn’t realize until maybe college that bánh mì would be so calcified into one kind of sandwich. We have peanut butter bánh mì, grilled cheese is a bánh mì—it’s just the word for sandwich. As it became more popular, there arose a more singular definition of what this thing could be, but that also tracks with the way things get stuck in a single story when they hit the mainstream, and that was a very odd moment for me.
Broadly speaking, there are some interesting mixed feelings about colonization among Vietnamese people in the diaspora. I saw people in Vietnamese cooking Facebook groups saying they were grateful for colonization because now we have bánh mì. Or, in features on the bánh mì, there were little side notes about colonization, because how do you talk about that when you’re talking about a sandwich? That began my understanding of how ill-suited food media was to talking about these things, like social history. The bánh mì opened a lot for me personally in a lot of small things I’ve read over the years.
The story in America, in particular, adds war and exile to colonialism when it comes to the bánh mì. How do you reconcile this in your thinking and writing?
I think war, colonialism and exile apply to the individual human as well. Not to say that humans and sandwiches are the same thing, but to see an echo of your experience in an object—we don’t always appreciate how we’re buffeted around by history, or say, well, that’s actually me: all these histories and migrations are rolled up into my past, as well. For instance, there’s so many really interesting parallel debates over the evolution of a dish in a certain place: is that dish faithful or authentic? How does that play out in the way people relate to their source cultures? Culture isn’t purely transmitted—you’re always impacted by your context, and to see that play out in micro and macro scales is always very interesting. Having those debates over food kind of primes us to have those conversations about people, too.
I’m part of the second generation of immigrants, refugees technically, and so my family on my father’s and mother’s side are all from Vietnam: dad’s side is from Central, mom’s side is from polar North and South Vietnam, and—let me think. The grandparents that I was raised with were in Illinois. Everyone came around 1975, and I was born in Chicago.
Chicago pizza or New York pizza?
Chicago—only for the tavern-cut cracker thin variety. I don’t love the deep dish, but the tavern cut is very special.
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In 2019, you wrote in a review of the San Francisco fine-dining restaurant Le Colonial that it’s meant to evoke “a tropical French oasis in Vietnam during the 1920s,” and concluded that it’s an “Orientalist specter.” What led you to write that review?
It was interesting because—I mean, throughout my career and throughout my coming up reading food writing, I had this sense of confusion. In the sense that I thought I was just crazy for thinking things about these places like Le Colonial—like, are other people just fine with this? They go to this restaurant and don’t see the things that I see and don’t notice the things that I notice? They’re just fine with that? It was really interesting to have the platform to revisit this place and talk about it. It’s part and parcel of this form of analysis that I have been working on for a long time, which came through in a review of Andrew Zimmern’s Lucky Cricket restaurant, which was also a white lens on Asian food. But it was very frightening for me to take this on, and to just see if my point of view was actually an outlier. Was I actually crazy?
What kind of response did you get?
It was certainly very polarizing, and I got all kinds of responses, from all along the spectrum of agreement to disagreement. For me what was significant was hearing from other Southeast Asians, or other people from colonized communities, and knowing that that resonated with them was really good.
Well, the review is typical of your food writing—sensory, layered and complex, but able to take on aspects of social commentary that other food writers tend to eschew. What would you like to see more of when it comes to food media and social consciousness?
I would love to see more independent publications. I don’t know if we’re going to get more social consciousness out of mainstream publications because they have so much they need to worry about. I think about this in terms of niche publications, in terms of ethnic and labor newspapers. There should be room for all of those variations in food-specific writing too. The funding isn’t there, but it should be; communities should step up. I’m excited by The Dish, the Democratic Socialists of America’s food-writing project—stuff like that is really exciting. There’s so much space for more—a plenitude of food publications! And we shouldn’t just be looking to the mainstream ones for validating every niche belief or ideology, there could be so much more. It’s about abundance, not scarcity.
You’ve been a freelance writer, an award-winning podcaster, a chef, and now reviewing restaurants for the Chronicle. I have to ask: What’s it like being a food critic for a major newspaper?
It's a lot of work. I’m not a very organized person, so a lot of the work goes into just trying to sync up all of my calendars. I have to know what place I’m eating dinner at every night, what restaurants are open, where is it, how do I get there, what name do I give. I eat out six nights a week, it’s all stacked on top of each other.
The actual writing itself is so exciting and so interesting. I think there’s a lot of fun in writing in a genre that’s widely misunderstood. People approach you open to ideas, they don’t have their guards up in the same way as they do when they’re reading a David Brooks column. You approach food writing generally pretty much ready to learn something, read about something you don’t know about. And I think that’s cool. When you’re expecting to be comforted, I think the discomfort that can sometimes show up is more poignant, it sticks with people. That aspect of it is very underutilized by food writers.
So many food critics have gone to wild lengths to maintain anonymity—from using aliases to wearing wigs to obscuring their faces with baseball caps and sunglasses. What’s your routine?
For awhile I was doing video game character names. Now I’m just doing generic Asian women's names, which is very helpful in a place with lots of Asian people like the Bay Area. My video game names were from the NIER series—Emil came through sometimes, Yonah… Sometimes I was Paula, from Earthbound. I don’t wear disguises. I have a lot of different outfits, but nothing so serious as what Ruth Reichl used to do.
What does the bánh mì mean to you personally? Do you have a favorite version?
We didn’t have that much money when I was growing up, and we would eat a lot of Wonderbread. Bánh mì for me was Wonderbread with braunschweiger [a liverwurst spread], and it was putting a little bit of Maggi’s seasoning on the bread with the braunschweiger, and maybe some margarine, and putting it in the toaster oven. That was bánh mì for me, which is sort of similar to the popular conception of it.
I’ve come to really like the sardines with tomato sauce variant.
Food writers love sardines so much.
I think there’s a cultural cachet to liking the oilier fish.
In 2017 you wrote a recipe for a breakfast bánh mì, you’ve written surveys of SF’s best sandwiches and, of course, you co-hosted a podcast called Racist Sandwich. Given the focus of this publication, I have to ask: Do you have a favorite sandwich in general?
I think for me it’s the breakfast sandwich. The bacon, egg and cheese. And a bonus if it has hash browns and/or tater tots inside of it. That’s very good.
Native midwesterner here to tell you she's right: tavern cut Chicago pizza is Chicago's best kept secret: loaded with toppings on a thin cracker-style crust.
Ooh, this has me thinking about my favorite Singaporean sandwich - Roti John. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roti_john