Not so long ago the American food media were in a spin about a sandwich from Vietnam. Two New York City food writers contacted me in 2008 wanting to get a local perspective on the phenomenon. The bánh mỳ (or mì) had become de rigueur in burger-land and there was a need to write about its origins, about whether what was being clamped between the wheat in the US was authentic or bastardised. I didn't know whether they wanted to write about here or there. I suspected there.
So I pretended to be a novice on the subject. I said my location in Hanoi was a disadvantage as the northern variant of the bánh mỳ was inferior (that part I maintain to be true). I said I wished I had spent more time in the south so I could've been more help (kind of true; the first part). I said all kinds of other crap, too, like if you're ever in the district, I'll show you around.
Sometimes, the working for free thing makes me nasty. No doubt they pieced together a story and the readers got a nice short list of places to pick up their "exotic" sandwich in downtown NYC. Meanwhile I have continued to indulge in the real thing whenever I've been south to Saigon or Nha Trang. In Hanoi, I have abstained.
But just the other weekend I found myself wheel to wheel with this bread roll cart. The vendor eye-balled me warily for a moment to assess my promise as a paying customer. I looked out sideways from under my sunglasses and assessed my own appetite and waited for her to rule me out and sit down.
Then I ordered. There is cat and mouse in dealings with street vendors and I've learned to play the game.
While the now world-renowned bánh mỳ is substantial enough as a meal on its own, a baguette spread with pâté (sometimes also butter and mayonnaise) and filled with various cold cuts (or grilled meat or fish cakes), cucumber, coriander and chilli, the sandwich on offer here is a baby version. Called Bánh mì cay Hải Phòng, this bread roll is far less elaborate and most certainly only a snack. Slender and about 20cm in length, the bread reminds me of the consistency of a dinner roll at a posh restaurant, definitely less airy than Hanoi's regular baguettes (seen in the top photograph above). Pâté is knifed into the central slit, followed by crunch, zing and heat in the form of fried shallots, coriander and chilli sauce respectively.
I said it was a snack. I'm not sure that's true when one has three in five minutes.