Mad about bánh mì #1: District Tonkin

7 March 2015 by Hazel

These past few months have seen Copenhageners go mad for bánh mì. The sandwich itself is no new concept; it dates back to the French colonisation of Vietnam in the 1860s, when the French imported their baguettes and the natives filled them with Vietnamese cold cuts, pork sausage, pâté, tofu, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeño, pickled carrots, daikon, etc. In Copenhagen, the bánh mì that you find on every street corner in Vietnam is only just arriving.

District Tonkin

District Tonkin was really the forerunner in introducing the bánh mì to Copenhagen, though it was and is by no means the only place selling the popular viet-baguette. Their concept shop in Frederiksberg became so successful that they recently opened District Tonkin Bánh Mì near Kongens Nytorv. I met the owner Nickie over a bánh mì and a Vietnamese coffee.

What do you feel your success on Gammel Kongevej is down to? How did word get around?

We didn’t do much at all, except staying true to the concept. I never spent anything on marketing. When you want to do street food you want to be street credible, which means doing it by word of mouth, and the only way you can do that is by making sure people have a good experience and like your food. We are not people with big movements but we do rely on our honesty and simplicity.

Why specifically focus on bánh mì with your second shop, since you serve other food than just the sandwich?

‘Bánh mì’ is actually the Vietnamese word for ‘bread’ and most of the dishes we make here are served with bread, as a sandwich itself or on the side to accompany a dish. Bread is a food of the streets in Vietnam, you wouldn’t find it served in a restaurant, and the concept of District Tonkin is all inspired by the streets — also with the furniture and décor in the store.

District Tonkin, Bánh Mí, Dronningens Tværgade, madaboutcopenhagen
District Tonkin, Bánh Mí, Dronningens Tværgade, madaboutcopenhagen

Where do your recipes come from?

Some of them are inherited from my family, but my family are from central Vietnam and I fell in love with Tonkin (in the North) and all the surrounding villages, so the flavours of Tonkin inspire many of my recipes.

Is the bread the same as the classic French baguette?

No, though that’s where it came from. The Vietnamese baguette is made of rice flour and wheat. It has to be soft like brioche inside and the outside has to be crispy. It can’t become dry; if it’s dry then it destroys everything.

If the meat isn’t marinated the right way or the sauce, herbs and chilli aren’t the right ones, then it’s not a Vietnamese sandwich. Every bite that you take, should be a really good one. Sometimes I would eat seven a day when I was living in Vietnam, just because I enjoy them so much. So when I was going to open this place, I knew exactly how I wanted it.

Nickie making a sandwich, District Tonkin, Bánh Mì, madaboutcopenhagen
Nickie making a sandwich, District Tonkin, Bánh Mì, madaboutcopenhagen

Everyone has their own recipe, I don’t think that any is better than the other, it’s just a matter of different tastes and influences.

Tell me about your bánh mì

We have four. The marinated pork is influenced by the Chinese immigrants in Vietnam. Second is the ‘traditional’ bánh mì, with sausage, marinated pork and pâté — this is what we call the ‘special’ in Vietnam, but here it’s somehow translated as the ‘traditional’. Then we have the B3, which is the most popular one with the Danes, it’s filled with grilled beef and sesame. I was inspired when I was in Hanoi eating grilled beef on a skewer inside bread, I took the skewer out and drizzled on some sauce — I had no idea what it was, then I tried to recreate it and do my own thing with it. My Hanoi friends love this one too. Lastly, the vegetarian one: tofu, which is steamed, so it’s almost the texture of sausage.

What have you learnt about Danes in relation to Vietnamese food?

The more people travel, the more interested they become in Vietnamese food. Vietnam is a very open country and everyone is travelling there, so of course when they come back they are looking for places in Copenhagen where they can relive their travel experiences.

The more interest there is, the more Vietnamese restaurants will open and I think it’s just lovely that there are so many new ones opening up and developing their own concept because we need that! We can’t just represent one dish that everyone thinks is the only one. I embrace all my colleagues that are opening places, because it’s going to be really good for all of us to present Vietnam in our own different ways.

And bánh mì in Copenhagen?

I think the bánh mì has actually come later than everything else, it’s very new to Copenhagen. The first month I opened on Gammel Kongevej, serving Vietnamese street food, nobody knew what it was, they were expecting a rice noodle salad, so the bread surprised them a little!

B3 grilled beef and sesame, District Tonkin, Bánh Mì, madaboutcopenhagen
B3 grilled beef and sesame, District Tonkin, Bánh Mì, madaboutcopenhagen

This is the famous B3, and, quite honestly, every bite sends me to heaven (or is it Vietnam?) and back. The sandwich is perfectly assembled, with the meat and sauces filling the centre and the fresh herbs, chilli and cucumber crammed in on top. The baguette has got that bit of crunch to the crust and a soft-but-not-too-soft brioche-y inside.

District Tonkin (Gammel Kongevej) is open daily from 11:00 – 19:00 (or until 18:00 at weekends)

District Tonkin Bánh Mì, Monday – Saturday, 11:30 – 21:30. See more info here.