Among all the Vietnamese dishes that came to the attention of the people in the western hemisphere, nothing else has received such tremendous acceptance as pho. Pho is considered as the national dish of Vietnam, and it has captured the fascination of so many people in the west because of its deceptive simplicity and its complex flavors. Pho is the perfect comfort food – warm, hearty and deliciously refreshing. In Vietnam it’s the common people’s food. It’s Vietnamese street food.
Vietnamese Pho can also be seen as a mirror that reflects Vietnamese heritage and
way of life. A dish that is steeped in tradition, pho is closely tied to
Vietnam that the history of pho can read as a parallel to the history
of its country of origin itself in the last hundred years. With the
migration of Vietnamese across the globe after the Fall of Saigon in
1975, the national dish of Vietnam came to grace the tables of people of
different heritages, thus leading to the colorful evolution of pho
throughout the years. In this article I’ll discuss pho, its history and
what makes pho many people’s favorite dish.
What Is Vietnamese Pho?
Of course, before I go into the history of pho, we should first tackle a more fundamental question about pho, namely: What in the world is pho?
Many readers know exactly what pho is. Articles on pho that you find around the Internet define the dish simply as Vietnamese noodle soup, traditionally made with beef or chicken broth that is flavored with various spices and topped with various herbs. But this definition seems far too simplistic because it does not really capture the rich and intense essence of beef in the broth that can only be achieved by simmering marrow-rich beef bones on low heat for at least three hours. It does not describe the complex layers of flavor created by the herbs and spices in pho. It does not illustrate the many textures created by the chewy rice noodles, the tender beef slices and the crunchy bean sprouts in the soup.
At the very least, the description “noodle soup” may be a misnomer. Soup implies that the dish is a side dish, but in fact pho itself is the main course. Pho is a noodle dish, and not a soup dish. So if you catch the phrase “noodle soup” somewhere on this side then it’s only because I let my guard down for a moment there. Pho should be called “Vietnamese noodle” or “soup noodle” because it is a noodle dish.
You cannot expect two bowls of pho made in two separate kitchens to ever taste the same. There are many recipes of pho existing out there, with each recipe somewhat different from each other. But those are only the published ones. There are countless others that are closely held by professional chefs running popular pho restaurants, and we’ll never know what they are. So techniques in cooking and preparing pho vary from chef to chef. Variations can also depend on what type of pho is being prepared. For instance, pho bac, which is pho from the northern regions of Vietnam, is made quite differently from how pho is prepared in southern Vietnam.
The history of pho stretches only a hundred years back in Vietnam’s recent past. But just as those hundred years have shaped Vietnam into the country it is today, so do those hundred years have shaped the way pho has become. Three events in Vietnamese history have marked the history of pho. They are
- The unification of Vietnam under French rule in 1887,
- The splitting of the country into North and South Vietnam in 1954, and
- The Fall of Saigon in 1975.
The Murky Beginnings of Pho: a French Connection?
The general theory held by most Vietnamese culinary experts is that the word “pho” is a corruption of the French “feu” or “fire.” Pho could be a Vietnamese adaptation of the French soup “pot au feu” or French beef stew, which the French brought to Vietnam when they came to rule the country. But let me take this theory further into something more concrete to possibly reflect facts. It is this: Vietnamese love to take foreign words and use them as our own, but with a Vietnamese accent. Thus “feu” became “Phở.” But there’s more. It’s always been a popular knowledge that the French, specifically a man named Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes in the country between 1624 and 1644, helped convert Vietnamese written language from a variant of Chinese characters into the modern age with translations using the Latin alphabet system. So the French connection to pho and Vietnamese language is much more intimate than casual, and it’s not unthinkable that pho did come from feu.
“Pot au feu” literally means “pot on the fire,” signifying the long hours required to create the soup. Just like with pho, cartilaginous, marrow-rich beef bones are used to make the broth of the pot au feu. These bones are left to boil and simmer in water on low heat for at least three hours, and the scum and foam formed by excess grease from the bone marrow are skimmed and discarded.
Another similarity that pot au feu shares with pho is the fact that ginger and onions are also roasted in an open flame before they are added to flavor the broth. Vegetables like carrots and turnips are used to top pot au feu. In pho, these vegetables are replaced by bean sprouts and herbs, with a little lime juice added in for taste.
Vietnamese Pho Today
Outside of Vietnam many Vietnamese culinary experts have taken upon themselves to protect pho and help it retain its traditional identity. Pho has nonetheless taken on an adaptive nature. Many other versions of pho have emerged outside of Vietnam that contain seafood and pork and are called “pho” by their creators. Such dishes actually already exist in Vietnamese cuisine, being called “hu tieu” with different local variations.
For the pho connoisseurs, these so-called seafood or pork pho recipes cannot be considered pho in the strict traditional sense. In any case, the fact remains that pho has captured the fascination of people from all over the world because of the appeal of its distinct and layered flavors. There’s no question you’ll find great tasting and authentic pho in many of Vietnam’s local pho shops. But wherever you are in the world – whether in the United States, in Europe, in Australia or even in other Asian countries – you are sure to find a Vietnamese restaurant that serves pho as well, the authentic kind.