“Bánh mì Sài Gòn! Đặc ruột, thơm bơ!”
(Saigonese bread! Solid core, butter-smelling!”)
Hawkers selling bread cried their wares as they pedaled bicycles through alleys in the poorer districts of Sài Gòn.
Those cries—heard in the morning, in the afternoon and the evening in Sài Gòn during the “pre-crisis” period—are no longer ubi-quitous now.
However, the ubiquity of bread in this city remains intact.
Centuries ago, when the French invaded Sài Gòn, they brought with them their bread.
The Western food, in turn, soon invaded a rice-dominating society and has ever since become an integral part of the local lifestyle.
In today’s Sài Gòn, if anything can rival phở (Vietnamese beef or chicken noodle soup) as a dish regarding popularity, bánh mì (as the locals call bread) is arguably the only answer.
Why the ubiquity?
The first reason is its cheap price.
Even in the midst of this current inflationary spiral, pay VND2,000 (roughly 10 U.S. cents) and you’ll have a loaf of plain bread enough for breakfast if you aren’t too picky about food.
Pay another VND10,000 (50 U.S. cents) and you’ll have a loaf of bánh mì thịt (roughly bread with [processed] meat) which tastes a lot better.
Bánh mì is also one kind of the local fast food.
In this regard, bánh mì is quite on the same footing with any type of Western fast food whether it is McDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut.
Drop by a stall of bánh mì thịt, wait for about three minutes, and you’ll get your breakfast ready.
Then you can take it to your office or anywhere to enjoy it.
So, a popular scene in Sài Gòn relates to an office worker on his or her way to work with a loaf of bread hang on the side of the motorbike or put in the backpack.
The most popular bread available both in Sài Gòn and Việt Nam is in the form of baguette (a.k.a. French loaf or French stick).
Just like phở, bánh mì is not merely a breakfast dish.
It can be as well eaten for lunch or dinner or supper or any time during the day (or night).
In Sài Gòn, bánh mì is sold by vendors who put all the wares on pushcarts.
Many sell bánh mì in the morning.
Some sell it from dawn till dusk.
But there are some who sell bánh mì only in the evening.
Rest assured that if somebody in Sài Gòn sells bánh mì only in the evening, his or her wares are really excellent!
To the poor in Sài Gòn, plain bread is good enough.
More than two decades ago, when Saigonese were still struggling with economic hardships, they invented a special way to enjoy bread at breakfast.
Many Saigonese ordered a cheap bowl of phở which consisted of a handful of noodles, some thin slices of beef and plenty of broth.
One or two loaves of bread were ordered.
Pieces of bread were then dipped into the stock, with which Saigonese filled their stomachs.
The energy available from the loaves of bread was sufficient for the breakfast-eater to survive the morning till lunchtime.
During economic hard times, aside from phở stock, bread could be used with condensed milk or plain sugar.
This may sound strange to some but it’s true:
Some eat one or two French loaves dipping them into a cup of coffee!
The story about bread in Sài Gòn would be incomplete if we ignore bánh mì thịt.
In fact, bread with meat is just a simplified way of naming this dish.
The first thing to have is a good loaf of French stick.
That means the loaf must have “solid core.”
To cut costs, some bakers in town have used a lot of yeast to inflate their bread.
This practice makes their loaves look bigger.
But they are lighter instead.
To distinguish themselves with those “hollow-core” bakers, other bakers claim themselves to be “solid-core.”
A French stick is broke open on the side with a knife.
The filling includes b (home-made butter created with shortening and eggs), pâté and bacon.
Local people often prefer chopped spring onion leaves, coriander and several slices of red chili as spices.
Soy sauce, and salt and pepper are then added.
Now your bánh mì thịt is ready.
An alien dish at first, bread has now been a staple food in Sài Gòn.
In a sense, the ubiquity of bread testifies to the open-mindedness of the Saigonese.
By QUỲNH THƯ
Source: The Saigon Times