Editor note: The author of this article, James Pham, is a Vietnamese American who is fluent in Vietnamese. This afforded James the unique opportunity of being able to interview and speak with the local chefs, cooks, and owners of various restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for purposes of this article.
“So, what do you feel like eating tonight?”
“I dunno. How about some fur?”
“Ummmm. You want to eat… fur?”
“Yeah, you know. Vietnamese noodle soup!”
With pho restaurants scattered in every Chinatown across the globe, this unfortunate conversation could’ve taken place anywhere from Los Angeles to London. Usually cheap and filling, pho’s the Vietnamese equivalent of fast food. However, the dish with simple beginnings has the weight of a nation on its shoulders. Chances are, unless you’re a true foodie, you’d be hard pressed to name any other Vietnamese food. Without the trendiness of Thai or the refinement of Japanese, Vietnamese cuisine has had a struggle to find its place alongside its Asian neighbors. But with pho on the menu, it’s a good start.
Origin of pho
Unless you’ve been living under a culinary rock, you know and love “pho” as a Vietnamese soup of rice noodles in a meat broth. Despite being more humble than haute, this cuisine has a fascinating history.
Earliest references to pho appear in literature from 1915, and photos of street vendors selling pho from before 1909. Some say that the name comes from the Cantonese “phan,” also pointing to a broad rice noodle sold on the streets of Hanoi by Chinese immigrants. Others claim that the Vietnamese lover of a French officer attempted to make “pot-au-feu,” the classic, rustic French beef stew. She couldn’t quite get the flavors right, so she started adding local spices and voila, Vietnamese “feu” was born. I love it when my food is controversial.
What historians do agree on; however, is that pho got its start in and around Hanoi at the turn of the century. Since Hanoi was still very much an agricultural society at the time, originally pho included turnips and carrots. Charred roasted onions and ginger along with star anise, cinnamon bark, cardamom, cloves and fennel rounded out the flavors.
Influence of other cultures
One of the things I love about pho is that it is distinctly Vietnamese. I’ve had pho all around the globe (GBP 8 for a bowl in London – yikes!) and barring some pretty sad imitations, they’ve all had that distinct Vietnamese taste to them. Something that has always surprised me is that while some foods are variations of dishes from neighboring countries (think curry, for example), I haven’t found a pho equivalent anywhere else in the region. Sure, Thais have kuay teaw and the Chinese have their ho fan, but they don’t even come close to the taste of Vietnamese pho. That’s not to say that pho hasn’t adapted itself to outside influences.
Before the French colonized Vietnam, people didn’t eat much beef. More valuable for the fields than the dining table, water buffalo was strictly off the menu. The only exception was when the animal was old or sick, hence, the need to cook it for hours on end. When the French arrived with their imported beef (tender cow beef, not stringy buffalo meat), beef was back on the menu.
But it wasn’t until the fall of the French in 1954 that Northern Vietnamese flooded to the South, bringing their pho recipes with them. When they got to the prosperous South and saw the abundance of food, pho quickly abandoned its austere roots and became a Meat Lovers dish. Herbivores need not apply.
With the end of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese diaspora introduced pho to the world, adding their own twist of serving it in huge bowls (known as “phở xe lửa” or train-sized pho). Some shops back in Vietnam have one-upped with their own “pho tàu bay” or plane-sized pho, but it hasn’t really caught on. After all, who can compete with American-sized portions?
Pho in the family
I’m sitting in a non-descript pho restaurant in the very untouristy district of Binh Thanh in Ho Chi Minh City. Whenever I ask where the best pho is, I’m inevitably directed here. The restaurant has been running for 35 years, a neighborhood institution, really, but it has no name and there is no menu. Regulars order by the cut of meat they want: rare, well-done, with or without meatballs to the more adventurous tripe, tendon and brisket.
The restaurant is run by five sisters and their own story traces the story of pho. Their father was originally a farmer from Hanoi who made his way to the South during the French rule. With not much to start out with, he jerry-rigged a cart and brazier and began selling pho on the streets with his then pregnant wife. Over the years, the daughters took turns watching the cart as he’d bring steaming bowls of pho right to people’s homes. Later, with his brother, he opened up his first pho restaurant, which has now grown to four locations. “My father took 50 years to perfect his pho. It took me 30. And it’s taken my own children 10. Pho runs through our veins”, says Nga, the fourth of the five sisters as we sit and talk over a wonderfully fragrant bowl of soup. When I ask her if she ever gets tired of pho, being around it 20 hours a day, seven days a week, she replies matter-of-factly, “Never. I still eat it every morning”.
Like at many pho restaurants, the day starts off early at 3 am. The secret of pho is in its long cooking time of 3-4 hours, extracting all the meaty, marrowy goodness from the beef bones. Huge pots are left to boil away all day, making the end-of-the-day bowls particularly gritty and delicious. However, in an age where even Knorr makes pho cubes (pronounced Kah-nor, with a hard ‘k’ by locals) and my own mom has sadly resorted to using tins of ready-made pho broth (Mom, say it ain’t so!), apparently there is still no substitute for the labor-intensive homemade taste of pho, evidenced by the steady stream of customers huddled over their piping hot bowls.
Most pho restaurants don’t need a menu because there are a set of standard options wherever you go. The first option is beef or chicken broth. While the spices that go into them are similar, chicken pho (phở gà) is made strictly from chicken bones, meat and innards. Because of how much work goes into the broth, most restaurants will serve one or the other, not both. Chicken pho has clearer broth and a lighter flavor. If there’s no “phở gà” sign outside, that means you’re in for the more common beef pho.
The next option is what kind of meat you want. The most Western-friendly cuts of meat are the rare, thinly sliced round steak (tái) which goes in raw but cooks in seconds in the boiling broth and the well-done brisket (chín). Equally innocuous are the beef meatballs (bò viên). For the more adventurous, there’s also flank (nạm), fatty brisket (gầu), tendon (gân) and tripe (sách). With high carbs and lots of protein, pho is definitely not a diet food.
Something else that’s recently caught on is having a raw egg cracked into your bowl (trứng) or the addition of protein-rich meat drippings (nước tiết). Nga says it’s “popular among teens and pregnant women”. You can also get any combination by adding the ingredients together. My recommendation for the pho neophyte would be “phở tái chín bò viên”. Skip the egg and the weirdly textured tripe. Trust me on this.
While homecooks will often make pho one day, stick it in the fridge and take off the congealed layer of fat the next, pho restaurants don’t have this option. You can skip the fatty top layer of broth by saying “không lấy béo”.
Next come the condiments. While pho restaurants pride themselves on their broth being just right, customers can tweak the taste by making it saltier with fish sauce (nước mắm), spicier using black pepper, fresh chilis, sate or Sriracha-type chili sauce, sweeter with black bean (hoisin) sauce or sourer with a wedge of lime. Often, pickled whole garlic (not recommended for first dates) and sometimes fried dough are left on the table.
Finally, what to do with that bewildering tray of vegetables with strange English names like “rice paddy herb” and “sawtooth coriander”? Ignore the unappetizing nomenclature and munch away. Be aware that while very pungent fresh, the flavors will mellow in the broth. Separate the leaves from the chewy stalks, tear up the coriander and throw everything in the broth along with the soybeans (which you can ask for fresh or blanched, making them crunchy or soft).
So, whether you call it “pho”, “fur”, “phan” or “feu”, I call it delicious!
More Pho Tips:
- If you’re ever in Binh Thanh District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), visit the unassuming no-name pho restaurant run by the five sisters at 17B Phan Boi Chau Street, near Ba Chieu Market.
- For a more upscale pho experience, try Pho 24, a quality chain of pho restaurants with branches in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia. 24 supposedly indicates how many ingredients are in the pho as well as how long it’s cooked.
- Pho made by northern Vietnamese will typically have less or no herbs with an earthier flavored broth. Look out for signs that say “Phở Hà Nội” or “Phở Bắc”.
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