In Australia, a Nation’s Banh Mi Love Affair

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter in Melbourne.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Australia runs on banh mi — the Vietnamese sandwich of a baguette with tangy pickled vegetables, a slick of mayonnaise and your protein of choice.

In the downtown Melbourne area alone, there are around 20 different banh mi options in the space of roughly a square mile, and they are the gold-standard lunch for all: “tradies,” or tradespeople, in fluorescent vests; white-collar workers; and students. (Many people refer to the banh mi simply as a “pork roll.”)

“Growing up in Australia, I was a sucker for a good sanger,” said Duncan Lu, the Vietnamese Australian founder of the Melbourne banh mi chain Master Roll, who grew up in Adelaide. “I love bread, and that’s exactly what banh mi is.”

Between 1976 and 1986, around 94,000 Vietnamese refugees made a new home in Australia after the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. About 282,000 Vietnamese-born people live in the country today, making it the country’s sixth-largest migrant community.

These arrivals constituted one of the first major influxes of migrants of color to Australia, after the country wholly abandoned its “White Australia policy” that had barred immigrants of non-European ethnic origins, said Anh Nguyen Austen, a historian at Australian Catholic University.

Many of these people initially worked in the textile industry or on assembly lines. Some families, wanting work where they could control their own hours and engage more with other people, chose instead to start banh mi shops, particularly in areas where Vietnamese refugees had first settled, like Bankston and Cabramatta in Sydney and Footscray in Melbourne.

Banh mi is already a fusion food, incorporating the bread-making techniques brought by French colonists with more traditional Vietnamese fillings. It demonstrates a Vietnamese “willingness to acculturate and to accept colonial heritage,” Dr. Nguyen Austen said. “Banh mi is very diplomatic.”

“We’ll make the best of it here,” she added, of Vietnamese approaches to life in Australia. “And they can call it a pork roll.”

For Australian consumers not from a Vietnamese background, banh mi was easy to accept. It was delicious — sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy and chewy — and it played on already established workday traditions of picking up a sandwich, or a “sanger,” for lunch from a local “milk bar” or corner store.

These days, banh mi shops are under new pressures. Australians are accustomed to not paying much for a banh mi, and they associate them with the country’s proud egalitarianism. The price of bread in Australia may have risen 24 percent since 2021, but a slipper-sized “pork roll” still usually costs around 10 Australian dollars, or about $6.50, even while other comparable deli sandwiches may be 17 Australian dollars or more.

For many banh mi retailers, who face razor-thin margins, “it’s pretty much on a knife’s edge,” said Mr. Lu, who now focuses on promoting Vietnamese home cooking. “Not just one thing — it’s just the whole model itself.” At his own Master Roll in South Yarra, a crispy pork roll is now a comparatively high 13.50 Australian dollars.

Some mom-and-pop shops have avoided putting up prices, worried that they may alienate consumers. But there is evidence that Australians do value a good banh mi enough to pay its true cost.

Ca Com Banh Mi Bar is a high-end banh mi shop in Richmond, a historically Vietnamese neighborhood in Melbourne, run by Thi Le, a Vietnamese Australian chef who grew up in Sydney and who was last year a finalist for the country’s Chef of the Year award. There, a banh mi costs around 17 Australian dollars.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the line was out the door, and some of the most popular fillings, including crispy pork, had already sold out, despite the banh mi there being among the most expensive in the neighborhood.

“She’s fighting the good fight,” Mr. Lu said about Ms. Le.

Now for the week’s stories.

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