October 28, 2012

A Banh Mi for You and Me

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I have always been interested in how much a culture’s cuisine is affected by its circumstances. Historically, a group could obviously only eat what was readily available through agriculture and trade. Some of the most unique and unexpected food, however, developed as result of direct outside influence from other countries. These dishes combine flavors from thousands of miles apart that probably should not work together, but somehow become national icons. No food encompasses this idea quite like the Bánh Mì sandwich, a Vietnamese specialty with a huge French influence. When France colonized Vietnam in the mid- to late-1800s, many aspects of the culture underwent changes. The food especially emerged as a combination of these two seemingly clashing cultures. The Bánh Mì is a hybrid between French and Vietnamese flavors and textures. Roast pork with typically Southeast Asian flavors like hot chilies, fish sauce and sugar is topped with crunchy pickled carrots and cucumber. A healthy dose of cilantro and hot sauce also make their way onto this traditional sandwich. The French influence is clearly visible in the crusty baguette that holds the sandwich together. Furthermore, pork liver pâté and mayonnaise, both steeped in French history, are integral elements of this Vietnamese sandwich. Pâté and cilantro? Mayo and pickled veggies? Those flavors do not go together at all. But somehow, on this sandwich, they do. Bánh Mìs are perfectly sweet and salty, creamy and crunchy, bright and herbaceous, rich and flavorful. When cultures and cuisines interact, unexpected culinary creations develop. Paris and Hanoi may be 5721 miles apart (go ahead, look it up), but a Bánh Mì makes it seem like the French and the Vietnamese are neighbors. For those of you who want to try a Bánh Mì here in Ithaca (8057 miles from Hanoi), check out Cafeo, tucked away next to Big Red Barbershop at 208D Dryden Road. Bánh Mì Mondays offer a terrific version of the sandwich. The culinary phenomenon of outside cultural influence is not limited to Vietnam. The seafaring Portuguese have had an immense influence on the cuisines of Thailand and Southern India. Chilies were not a mainstay of Thai food until the Portuguese brought them from South America. Potatoes, tomatoes, and other staples of Southern Indian cuisine were introduced by none other than Portuguese traders. The slave trade changed the scope of West African cuisine through the introduction of New World ingredients, and in turn slaves brought their own unique culinary practices to the Americas. Contrast that with Ethiopia in East Africa, which, in remaining relatively secluded from European influence, developed its own traditional cuisine. A culture’s food is a product of history, be it one of isolation or one of colonization. The culinary traditions that survive through history are those that combine readily available flavors to make delicious food. Different circumstances make certain ingredients more available than others, and cultures adapt their cuisines. Unexpected flavor combinations reflect the mark that an outside group can have. A Bánh Mì is not just a tasty sandwich, but also a reflection of a nation’s culinary history.

Original Author: Zachary Siegel