Walk into any banh mi shop and you’re met with an extensive menu of protein options, prepared with a range of marinades and techniques. Peer into the display cabinets and there’s mounds of teeth-shattering crackling from roast pork, honeyed Chinese barbeque meat, and chicken prepared with lemongrass, ginger or soy – grilled or fried. Sometimes there’s even teriyaki, katsu and karaage chicken. Or barbeque pork meatballs (xiu mai) in a thick, soupy tomato-based sauce.
More recently, places have added tofu and mushroom to ensure plant-forward folks have options, too. And for those who can’t make up their minds, there’s bound to be a deluxe combo version that packs in all the heavy hitters (mainly meat): roast pork, barbeque pork, chicken and beef. Suffice to say, we’re spoilt for choice.
But what came before these combos and flourishes? The answer is banh mi thit nguoi (which translates to “cold meat roll”). The OG banh mi, as many see it, followed the Vietnamisation of charcuterie and cold cuts (think hams, terrines and pate) – around the same time as the introduction of wheat-based bread, during a period of Vietnamese history known as the “French Century” (1858 to 1954). None were complete without thin slices of cha lua (Vietnamese ham).
My introduction to banh mi thit nguoi came in the form of an after-school snack made by my grandmother, who would cut long strips of her homemade cha chien (fried pork terrine) and take batons of cucumber and wedge them between a fresh, crusty Vietnamese baguette slathered in butter or margarine. When cha chien was in short supply, we’d use thick-cut discs of shop-bought cha lụa, a pork terrine wrapped and perfumed with banana leaf.
A visit to a Saturday school tuckshop (a Viet school stall run by nuns and grandmothers, including mine) led to a slightly more sophisticated version of banh mi thit nguoi, with the inclusion of pickled vegetables (carrot and daikon) and thinly sliced layers of barbeque pork.
On weekends we’d make a pit stop at Tây Đô and Như Lan, in the western suburbs of Adelaide, which would include a thick smear of chicken-liver-and-pork pate inside the walls of a fresh banh mi, and would follow with a slather of Vietnamese-style mayo – the eggier cousin to the French version, characterised by the noticeably absent tang of vinegar, and flavoured with garlic and pepper.
Pate and Vietnamese mayo are a little harder to find these days, so it was a thrill when I stumbled upon them at Banh Mi in Grenfell Plaza, which has also included nem chua (fermented pork) in its cold meat rolls for 13 years. Shops like Banh Mi Cha Phu Xuong on Hanson Road are celebrating cha lua in all its forms, selling a variety of traditional and modern chas to take home. You’ll be rewarded with a rich slather of house-made pate too.
Whenever a new shop opens, my friends and I scramble for the OG thit nguoi, as a way to gauge the shop’s take on the traditional but often hard-to-find offering. What cuts have they chosen? Is the cha made from a recipe passed down through the family? And do they include pate? (Please say they do.)
For all the ways shop-owners have adapted to incorporate modern ingredients and preparations, there’s a level of fun and creativity when a banh mi thit nguoi presents itself. It also ensures traditional techniques and ingredients continue to thrive. Next time you’re at your local banh mi shop, try the roll that started it all. Here’s where to get it in Adelaide:
Banh Mi - Vietnamese Roll
Grenfell Plaza, 2/25 Grenfell St, Adelaide
Banh Mi Cha Phu Xuong
1/56 Hanson Rd, Woodville Gardens
1/1 Hookings Terrace, Woodville Gardens
Banh Mi Tay Do
63 Flinders St, Adelaide
Banh Mi Nhu Lan
40 Hanson Rd, Woodville Gardens
Phu Huong Cafe
22/38 Catalina Ave, Parafield Gardens