When Andrea Nguyen was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, banh mi was still an insular Asian experience. Found almost only in Vietnamese refugee enclaves, it was a low-cost community staple – a convenient and portable dish as well as tasty.
But banh mi is now so ubiquitous that it was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary last week alongside 370 other words. ‘Omakase’, the Japanese chef’s choice meal concept, and ‘maitake’, a mushroom widely eaten in Asia, were also added.
Webster’s Dictionary is known for cementing trending vocabulary into its ranks every year. Banh mi and omakase are introduced alongside words like “herbal”, “grind” and “sus”.
“Dictionaries reflect how common and popular foods are,” said Nguyen, now a recipe developer and author of “The Banh Mi Handbook.” “Trying to bring Asian food out of the margins is really my overarching goal. It signals that acceptance. Like, ‘No, you’re not a foreigner anymore.’
Nguyen said he has seen banh mi grow in popularity over the decades. As more Vietnamese Americans moved out of ethnic neighborhoods, so did the banh mi. In the 2010s, it was a household name for the customizable sandwich of pâté, pickled vegetables and meat on a baguette, sold almost everywhere in the United States.
With the growing popularity of Asian cuisine, food experts say adding culture-specific words to dictionaries is the only sensible solution.
“The future of American food has strong Asianization,” said Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University.
“The future of American cuisine has strong Asianization.”
Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University
When the English language fails to adequately describe something with existing words, that’s when new cultural vocabulary tends to be added, he said.
“These terms met our entry criteria as words an English speaker is likely to encounter,” Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski told NBC News. “They have shown both widespread and long-term use, and can now be considered English words.”
Although she is enthusiastic about the concept of bringing bahn mi to a wider audience, Nguyen takes issue with the definition provided by Merriam-Webster. In its description, the dictionary refers to banh mi as a “generally spicy sandwich”.
“It doesn’t have to be spicy,” she said. “You can’t have any chili, just salt and pepper on this sandwich. By saying “spicy” I feel like it makes the sandwich even more exotic. »
Ethnic dishes and the terms to describe them have a consistent impact on how Americans talk about food, Ray said. He referred to cuisines like Italian and French, introduced to the North American palate a century ago, which are now inextricably linked to the way we talk about food.
“Why do we use ‘pasta’ as a word?” he said. “We use it because it’s a specific form of food, which in some ways was unfamiliar, unfamiliar and needed to be incorporated into the English language… For banh mi, you can technically call it a sandwich, but it’s not specific enough.”
According to Ray, food words enter society in two main ways: top-down or bottom-up.
French food words, Ray said, were introduced as markers of luxury and fine dining, and eventually became integrated into casual American lingo. Japanese omakase, usually a high-end experience, is incorporated in the same way.
In cities like New York, Ray sees Japanese cuisine replacing French cuisine as the most elite.
“Omakase is analogous to the word ‘restaurant’ or the word ‘entrance’,” he said. “Standard omakase menus in New York are the most expensive restaurants in New York, around $200.”
On the other hand, banh mis are a low or medium food, which first caught on in lower middle class immigrant communities and worked their way into the mainstream. Nguyen remembers her family running errands as a child and coming home with large grocery bags full of banh mis.
“We came to the United States and people were craving food from their home country,” she said. “And banh mi, you can make it from supermarket bread and it tastes superb… The nature of many Vietnamese dishes is very practical.”
Often exotic and brush-painted as spicy or hot, the inclusion of Asian food in Webster is a step towards normalization, Nguyen said. Samosa, bibimbap, soju and kimchi were added in previous years.
“Part of me is like, ‘What took you so long?’ “, did she say. “But then the other part of me goes, ‘Hey, that’s great, because there’s still a lot of people out there who need to know what that food is. “”