By definition, a sandwich is two pieces of bread with something stuck between them. That's what I thought until I came to Vietnam.
In December 2005 I came here for a vacation. My hotel room came with breakfast and dinner (Three Stars for $20 a night--rooms there go for $50 now, without meals!) One night, for my dinner, I ordered a hamburger.
"I'm sorry sir, but we don't have buns. So we can't serve you a hamburger."
So I asked if they had hamburger patties. The waitress said yes. I asked if they had bread. She said yes, many different kinds and she named them all. I told her to put the hamburger on pumpernickel bread.
"You aren't serious, sir... are you?"
I told her I was and that was one wonderful burger. When I got the bill, the caption was "MEAT SANDWICH." The waitress explained that since they had no hamburger buns, they had to charge me for a sandwich, which was actually cheaper--which allowed me to have credit for dessert. I didn't argue the point but I was puzzled.
When I moved to Vietnam a year later, I discovered that the word "sandwich" can mean a loaf of square bread (what is called "sandwich sliced bread" in America.) So, if my wife went to the store and told me she brought me a sandwich, it was usually a loaf of bread. If she told me she bought bread, it was usually a sandwich The term "banh mi" can mean either sandwich or bread.This is a sandwich. Even in Vietnam.
One of the Vietnamese national dishes is a submarine sandwich with mayonnaise, oil, hot sauce, vegetables, pate de foix, and cold cuts. They call it "banh mi." I eat these all the time. They're very cheap, running between 8,000 and 10,000 dong. I usually buy two for lunch.This is a typical burger combo from Lotteria. It goes for about 40,000 dong, roughly $3.00 And that's a hamburger. It isn't a sandwich. Not in Vietnam, anyway!
I live about three blocks from Lotteria
, a Korean-based hamburger chain owned by the Japanese Lotte Candy Company (still no McDonald's yet, but we do have Jollibee). They sell the hamburgers, fish burgers, chicken burgers, and shrimp burgers. When I started going there, I tried translating the items into English as I speak it. I said I wanted a "chicken sandwich."
"I'm sorry, sir. We don't have chicken sandwiches."
Thinking they were out, I asked for a fish sandwich. And I got the same answer. The same for shrimp sandwich. Someone else ordered a chicken burger
and got it. I started thinking this was a case of discrimination. I ordered a "Mega Burger" (it was made of three ground beef patties) and kept quiet.
So I began asking around. Why isn't a hamburger a sandwich but a loaf of bread is a sandwich?
The answer is quite amazing. The term they use for hamburger bun is the same as the word for "cake." I don't know where they got that. In every other Asian country I've been to, a hamburger is considered a sandwich (including Cambodia). But here a hamburger is served on cake
. And you can't make a sandwich with cake. Everyone knows that.Even though this has a hamburger patty, in Vietnam this isn't a hamburger.
So I showed some of my students at the university some pictures I got from the Internet of things we in America call hamburgers: The Sourdough Jack at Jack in the Box is served on regular sourdough bread, not a bun. It's a hamburger. There's the place in Boston I went to that won't serve hamburgers on anything but plain bread.Arby's would love this: It's not a sandwich, it's a burger!
And there were also the sandwiches served on hamburger buns. I don't know what Arby's would think if they knew the people here would call their sandwiches "burgers." Maybe that's why they have Arby's in Singapore and Indonesia, but not in Vietnam. A McDonald's Filet-O-Fish Sandwich is served on a hamburger bun. (I do think they're called Fish Burgers in some countries). In Vietnam, if someone offers you a "sandwich," this is what you might be getting!
Anyway, I now realize that the reason why these are burgers and not sandwiches is that they are all served on hamburger "cake."
I still can't, for the life of me, figure why the local sandwich with the pate, cold cuts, and Asian vegetables is called "bahn mi." And I'll never know the answer.