Get­ting a taste of Viet­nam

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

IT has been more than six decades since the end of French colo­nial rule in Viet­nam, but when Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande ar­rives this week he’ll strug­gle to avoid a quin­tes­sen­tial legacy of his coun­try’s rule: the baguette. Smeared with pate and loaded with fresh co­rian­der and cu­cum­ber, or just en­joyed with a pat of fresh but­ter, banh

mi are a de­li­cious sym­bol of Viet­nam’s last­ing links with its for­mer oc­cu­piers.

“The French were very proud of banh mi. I think French cui­sine has had a lot of in­flu­ence on Viet­namese cui­sine,” baker Nguyen Ngoc Hoan told AFP from his busy boulan­gerie in Hanoi’s French Quar­ter.

Hoan started bak­ing banh mi– which refers to plain bread or the pop­u­lar pe­tit pain loaded with meat, veg­eta­bles or fried egg – in 1987 and five years later got a stint at the bak­ery in the sto­ried Metropole ho­tel, built by the French at the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

The sand­wich has be­come a foodie favourite in hip­ster en­claves around the globe, sold from food trucks and sipped with craft beer in both its clas­sic form and a flurry of new va­ri­eties.

Hoan’s fa­ther was also a baker but dis­cour­aged his son from fol­low­ing in his floured foot­steps.

“The bak­ing pro­fes­sion chose me, it was not my de­ci­sion,” Hoan said, speak­ing in front of a wall of ovens as his work­ers tire­lessly knead dough nearby.

He started his ca­reer bak­ing what he called Viet­namese bread – airy on the in­side, crusty on the out­side – but af­ter train­ing with a French baker in Shang­hai de­cided to switch to the denser French style.

Now, he churns out thou­sands of warm baguettes daily, along with crois­sants, creme caramel and home­made pate.

French bread was first made in Viet­nam to feed hun­gry sol­diers in In­dochina, France’s em­pire which spanned much of South­east Asia from 1858 to its crush­ing de­feat in the Dien Bien Phu bat­tle in Viet­nam in 1954.

But the French be­came known for more than food, gain­ing a bru­tal rep­u­ta­tion for crush­ing anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist move­ments and putting Viet­namese labour­ers to work in gru­elling con­di­tions on rub­ber plan­ta­tions, while heav­ily tax­ing cit­i­zens dur­ing pe­ri­ods of drought and famine.

Most French who came to Viet­nam weren’t in­ter­ested in low-level jobs like bak­ing.

To fill the gap, Chi­nese and Viet­namese worked in boulan­geries – of­ten hid­den away in the back so cus­tomers wouldn’t know who was bak­ing their bread.

“By 1910, lit­tle baguettes or pe­tit pain were sold in the street to [Viet­namese] peo­ple who were on their way to work,” ac­cord­ing to Erica Peters, food his­to­rian and au­thor of Ap­petites and Aspi­ra­tions in Viet­nam. In the years that fol­lowed, meat, veg­eta­bles or fish ap­peared in the bread – pre­cur­sors to the mod­ern-day banh mi sold all over Hanoi, a city rife with French colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture, bistros and cafes. Other culi­nary in­flu­ences leaked in too. Lo­cal cooks used meat scraps and un­used bones from French butch­ers to cre­ate pho – the na­tional dish of beef or chicken noo­dle soup, ac­cord­ing to Peters. Cof­fee and creme caramel are some of the other French culi­nary left­overs.

The ubiq­uity of those in­flu­ences will not be lost on Hol­lande, who ar­rives to­day for talks with Viet­nam’s lead­er­ship and French busi­ness­men.

To­day, Viet­nam’s com­mer­cial cap­i­tal Ho Chi Minh City is dot­ted with chic cafes serv­ing croque-mon­sieur and mac­arons at Paris prices.

But the US$1 banh mi still rules Hanoi’s street food scene.

It is so en­grained in Viet­nam’s culi­nary cul­ture that few draw its lin­eage back to France.

“I don’t know and don’t care whether it’s French, I just serve it like this,” said Nguyen Thi Duc Hanh, sit­ting in front of her shop as the lunchtime rush be­gins. She sells hun­dreds per day and keeps her menu sim­ple:

banh mi served with pate and a fried egg, beef steak or her very own ver­sion of boeuf au vin made with lo­cal spices.

One of her reg­u­lars, Nguyen Van Binh, said he has been eat­ing banh mi for 50 years, and un­like Hanh, thinks of it as a hy­brid dish.

“Banh mi came from France but it was changed and adapted to suit Viet­namese tastes,” said Binh, be­fore dig­ging into his fried egg and pate served with a crusty roll. –

Nguyen Van Hoan, 62, baker and owner of Hoan Boulan­gerie, makes baguettes at his bak­ery in Hanoi.

An em­ployee pre­pares a banh mi for sale in­side Banh Mi Phuc restau­rant.

A worker car­ries plates with baked breads at Hoan Boulan­gerie work­shop.

A street ven­dor sits in front of Hoan Boulan­gerie.

A man en­joys eat­ing a banh mi in­side Banh Mi Phuc restau­rant in Hanoi.

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