- Published on Monday, 29 July 2019 14:00
- Written by Mervin Lee. Photos by Mervin Lee.
“We’re going to Taipei on VietJet Air,” an acquaintance said to me. An international flight on Vietnam’s notoriously delayed airline didn’t sound like the best idea ever. But who would expect that I was set to fly to Tainan, a city on the island’s southwest coast, just a few hours after the brief conversation with her. The reality was that I found it excruciatingly difficult to reject a cheap flight deal.
Taiwan is famous worldwide for being the birthplace of milk tea. I have never been a fan of the drink, but my to-do list included trying Taiwan’s very first boba milk tea shop. That called for a brief train ride to Taichung, Taiwan’s second-most populous city. This article, however, has nothing to do with Chun Shui Tang, Taiwan’s inaugural trà sữa joint, but a much more distinctively Vietnamese item.
Signs of a bustling Vietnamese community surround Taichung’s recently revitalized and modern train station: numerous phở joints, a street shack serving both bún thịt bò xào and bánh xèo, and, believe it or not, a full-fledged restaurant that specializes in Hanoi’s culinary crown jewel — bún đậu mắm tôm.
In an attempt to not be caught in Taiwan’s relentless rainy season, what finally caught my eye was a bakery that touched the culturally Vietnamese part of my soul: Lò Bánh Mì Pasteur. “Lò bánh mì” means bakery in Vietnamese, and its two owners were focused on their craft when I paid them a visit at 8am.
Nuong, originally from Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta, started the business less than a year ago, certainly not without numerous challenges. Taiwan’s strict laws on imported produce meant that almost everything crucial to the making of bánh mì thịt, such as bánh mì, chả, chả bò, pâté and char siu, has to be made from scratch. Most recently, a host of countries, including Taiwan, banned pork products from Vietnam in fear of furthering the spread of African swine fever.
“When I [was] first married in Taiwan, I worked in a Vietnamese restaurant. Naturally, [it was] something that most of us [Vietnamese ladies in Taiwan] could easily adapt to,” she tells Saigoneer. Nuong was among one of the first Vietnamese brides who arrived in Taiwan shortly after the devastating Jiji earthquake in 1999.
My first bite into Nuong’s bánh mì thịt evoked in me a sensation that could only be described as “same same, but different” in comparison with bánh mì in Vietnam. It was delicious, especially the perfect firmness of the Vietnamese ham. In a way, the sandwich was very similar to a typical bánh mì in Saigon, yet quite different. For starters, the pickles had a different tanginess to them, owing to the use of non-Vietnamese vinegar, which is similar to the condiment you might add to your hủ tiếu somewhere in District 5. The unorthodox addition of authentic Vietnamese-style char siu made the combination pleasantly sweet and chewier. But the starkest differences were in its main components.
“Taiwanese flour is so different. It’s sweeter and chewier,” she explains. Her “baguettes” are coated with vegetable oil almost immediately after baking — the secret to their crunchiness after being toasted a second time. Different varieties of bánh mì are made to order when customers appear.
Lò Bánh Mì Pasteur’s homemade pâté is several shades darker than those in Vietnam. “The Taiwanese like eating jiànkāng [healthy], [so] we don’t use preservatives. That’s what makes the commercial pâté so pinkish,” she adds.
As Nuong’s trusted bánh mì assembler, Tuyet swiftly tossed every last essential condiment onto a near-complete sandwich. A brief chat with her made me realize that the presence of Vietnamese restaurants and bakeries in Taichung was worthy of a story of its own.
“The first batch [of brides] were more innocent. We came for a better life. If you were lucky [and met] a good husband, [you had] no problems,” she says. For her, however, it was the opposite, as life in Taichung proved to be more difficult than back in the fatherland. “I was willing to drag my luggage all the way from District 8 to Taiwan, yet I was equally willing to drag it all back home,” she laments, adding that her life was tougher than back home — “khổ hơn Việt Nam em ơi.”
Still, now that Nuong’s children have grown up, her life has gotten more comfortable, with the exception of a few things. “At the end of the day, what we really miss is Vietnamese food,” she says, as I wash my last bite of bánh mì down with the help of cà phê sữa đá.
We couldn’t help but laugh. That one thing that has made Vietnam my second home? Definitely the food.
Lò Bánh Mì Pasteur is open from 8am to 8pm. Visit the bakery’s Facebook page here.
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