Pho : The Vietnamese Addiction
GASTRONOMICA WINTER 2002 alexandra greeley
For many Vietnamese, the fragrant, nourishing, and gently spiced beef and rice-noodle soup from Hanoi known as pho bo (or pho for short) inspires poetry, literary musings, and culinary pursuits, to say nothing of fond memories of home. Indeed, Nguyen Tuan, one of the foremost Vietnamese literary figures of the twentieth century, wrote a classic essay on the correct preparation of pho . In another essay, the Vietnamese writer and world traveler Le Hong Tho, who describes himself as “harassed by the demon of pho ,” recounts his search for pho in Europe and America. Cold and hungry on his first trip to Paris, he visited a Vietnamese restaurant reputed to serve even better food than that found in Vietnam. “Naturally enough, as soon as I took my seat at a table, I ordered a bowl of pho ,” he writes. “Alas, I failed to bring to my mouth the taste of Hanoi pho, although no ingredient was missing: meat, hot pepper, lemon juice, aromatic herbs and cinnamon…”1 Le Hong Tho’s quest for a proper bowl of pho took him back to the soup shops of Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese food scholar and cookbook author Lien Yeomans, now owner and chef of Green Papaya Restaurant in Brisbane, Australia, is equally passionate about pho . “Pho has been my pet topic in Vietnamese food since my First attempt to replicate that special pho aroma that haunts the senses of all expatriates,” she reminisces. “Hanoi, early morning, winter. A bowl of piping hot pho , a crowded, warm room, faces showing enjoyment. And that special aroma: how could any Vietnamese not feel nostalgic?” Indeed, many Vietnamese admit to a pho addiction.
For a food that evokes such strong emotions, its origins are surprisingly unclear. Just how and when pho originated is a matter of passionate debate. Vietnamese cookbook author Nicole Routhier, whose groundbreaking Foods of Vietnam helped familiarize Western palates with the country’s cuisine, suggests that pho evolved from the Mongolian Hot Pot, a lusty and pungent beef soup served communally at the table. But Vietnamese scholar Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a frequent lecturer on Vietnamese culture at the Smithsonian Institution, disagrees, contending that pho originated in China’s Yunnan Province, where Vietnamese nationalists, having fled the French occupation at the end of the nineteenth century, lived along the Chinese-Vietnamese border. There they learned to cook many local dishes, including a popular goat meat and noodle soup; when they returned to Vietnam, they brought along the soup recipe, but substituted beef for the goat meat. A third scholar of pho , Le Van, editor at the Vietnam Service of the Voice of America in Washington, D.C., notes that the ethnic Polynesians who were the earliest settlers in South Vietnam enjoyed a similar soup containing ground pork, tripe, and chicken eggs. Finally, Le Thiep, part-owner of a group of pho restaurants in the southeastern United States called Pho 75, believes that cooks created pho in the early 1900s as a way to use up beef left over from the Vietnamese Tet (New Year) celebrations.
Contrary to popular etymology, the word pho has nothing to do with the French pot au feu, the one-pot beef and vegetable dish. Nguyen Ngoc Bich believes that pho derives from the Mandarin Chinese character fen, meaning “rice noodles.” As Chinese street vendors hawked their soup around town, he says, they would call out “fe…..n,” the first part of which sounded something like pho to the Vietnamese ear.2 “When the refugees imported this soup to Vietnam, a vendor would not call out ‘fe…n,’ which in Vietnamese means ‘excrement.’3 The Vietnamese simply dropped the final “n” and created a new word meaning “beef noodle soup.” No one, at least, disputes that Hanoi is the true home of pho or, more precisely, pho bac, “noodle soup of the North.” As the Vietnamese writer Huu Ngoc says, “The real pho can only be eaten in Vietnam, more precisely in the North, more precisely still, in Hanoi. The dish is rightly called ‘Hanoi soup.’” Old-time Hanoians can still recall pho vendors roaming the city streets, cook stove and soup trappings on bamboo poles slung over their shoulders, or trundling pushcarts from neighborhood to neighborhood to sell their fare. Since few housewives had time to make the soup with its complex seasonings, pho peddlers prospered. Successful vendors often clustered stools around the cookpot as a convenience for customers, a scene still common in Vietnam today, although many pho makers have moved to casual indoor settings. “That has to do with the nature of pho ,”
Le Van says of this informal meal-in-a-bowl, “because if the pho restaurant is plush, pho patrons won’t come anymore.” Even the seediest-looking pho shops have Mercedes and BMWs parked alongside. Pho is a great social equalizer.
Pho bac remained largely a northern Vietnamese dish until 1954, when around one million North Vietnamese fled south from the new Communist regime, settling primarily in Saigon, today’s Ho Chi Minh City. “When I moved south in 1954,” says Le Van, “I was a pho addict. I couldn’t live without it.” To satisfy his passion, he went on a pho quest, visiting almost all of the local Hu Tieu restaurants, which sold bowls of soup made with dried squid, tripe, and pork broth. Of course, this was not true pho as he knew it, but once Hanoian cooks began to teach their southern neighbors the magic and mystery of pho , things changed.
Today, pho is nearly universal. Vietnamese (and others) at home and abroad can sit down to a bowl of pho at any time of day or year. The soup is considered especially good at breakfast, to start the day off right, but it appears just as often at lunch and dinner and between meals as a snack. Customers at the Green Papaya Restaurant get a special late-night treat: the bones from the stock served with rice.
Postcard of an itinerant purveyor of food in Tonkin (North Vietnam),
dated October 13, 1905.
cour te sy of vie n linh, publishe r, khoi hanh, a monthly arts & literary review
Not surprisingly, the proliferation of pho has led to partisan rivalries, pitting cooks from the North against those from the South, and pho aficionados everywhere against one another in a seemingly endless and obsessive discussion over what constitutes a high-quality broth. Even friends commonly disagree as they enjoy bowls of the soup, and cooks rarely concur on the perfect recipe.
Lien Yeomans says that there are as many theories about making pho as there are pho shops. It ultimately depends on which style of pho —Hanoi or Saigon—people want, and on who is doing the cooking, a Chinese from Vietnam or a Vietnamese from a particular region. “Each region has its own version of pho ,” she says, loyally adding that nothing surpasses the Hanoi soup, “the purest form,” which calls for rare beef, fish sauce, lemon juice, fresh chilies, sliced onions, and mint for seasoning. “Mung bean sprouts are a really hideous addition,” she says, disdainful of the South Vietnamese practice of adding not only fresh or blanched sprouts, but also splashes of hot pepper or chili black bean sauce, and herbs like Thai basil and ngo gai (cilantro), which make pho as much a salad as a soup.
Purists might also spurn pho ga, a chicken version of pho bo, which the North Vietnamese may have contrived when beef was scarce during the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s. This lighter-tasting alternative is particularly favored by women and children. Yet even those who prefer pho ga may never get to taste the real thing, contends Thuy Hanh, a former restaurant owner in Southern California’s Little Saigon, unless they buy “walking chicken” from Vietnamese butchers or visit Vietnam, where free-roaming chickens yield a textured meat and crunchy skin.
Regional differences aside, most pho lovers agree that, with few exceptions, the best preparations come from pho -only shops, where the cook has mastered the soup’s many secrets and can give it undivided attention. For pho to pass muster, the pale amber broth must be skimmed of fat and blood and be as clear as water: a murky liquid reveals that the cook took shortcuts when cleaning and blanching the bones. The bones themselves are important, says Thuy Hanh, who recommends using mostly leg bones with their plentiful marrow to add just the right sweetness. A properly made broth should have an appealing, harmonious, and appetizing aroma. If not, the predominant seasonings of fresh ginger, star anise, and cloves are not in correct balance. These seasonings, in turn, should enhance, rather than suppress, the key flavor of beef. The beef itself must be of top quality, free of sinews. The meat should be used fresh, not frozen, and the cook must take care not to overcook or dry it out. The rare beef for garnish must be sliced very thin.
The special banh pho soup noodles should be freshly made from a simple paste of ground rice, a small amount of alum, and water. This paste is rolled out paper thin into a pizza-size sheet, then cut into noodles less than one-quarter inch wide and the length of a strand of spaghetti. Because they don’t undergo a double-cooking process of initial boiling and then immersion in hot broth, fresh noodles provide a desirably chewy texture. Nguyen Ngoc Bich maintains that double cooking compromises the taste and texture of the noodles, a texture bolstered by the vegetable oil that films the rice sheets to prevent the noodles from sticking to one another.
Beyond these considerations, pho preferences boil down to personal taste. Soup shops generally offer ten to fifteen different toppings for beef pho , including such possibilities as pho tai (rare beef only), pho chin (cooked beef only), pho tai chin (a mixture of cooked and rare beef), and pho tai nam gau sun (rare beef, cooked brisket, fatty meat, and cartilage). Once the customer makes a selection, the cook readies the soup. The ingredients are arranged in the bowl—first the noodles, then the meat, and finally the greens. The cook then carefully ladles in the hot stock so that none of the ingredients are disturbed. “It must look like a kind of painting,” says Le Thiep. “The green onion, the white onion, the noodles, the red meat, the color of the broth, the greens.”
The diner then seasons and garnishes the pho to taste, with sliced chilies, Thai basil leaves, hot pepper sauce, hoisin sauce, bean sprouts, vinegared onion slices, fish sauce, and lime or lemon juice, but never soy sauce (“an unpardonable offense,” says Le Van).
Even eating pho is an art. Haiphong native Helene Sze McCarthy says that because pho is a delicate soup, she begins by mixing the liquid seasonings on a separate plate, then stirs the noodles gently to release the soup’s fragrance. With her chopsticks she lifts out a small portion of meat, noodles, and herbs and places them onto the small soup spoon she holds in her other hand. Dipping her chopsticks in the seasoning mixture, she then daubs some seasoning onto the meat and noodles and slowly eats the soup. Le Thiep, on the other hand, believes that pho can be eaten any way the diner likes, as long as the broth and its components are enjoyed gradually and together.
Eating the soup is only part of pho ’s pleasures, however. Lien Yeomans sums up the experience: “Your nose savors the unique aroma rising from the piping hot stock. The first mouthful tells you that the stock is an honest stock…after that you let yourself feel seduced by the textures of the noodle, the beef, the flavors of the fresh herbs, the nourishing sweetness of the stock sharpened by a touch of lemon.”
1. Le Hong Tho, “In Praise of Ph ,” Vietnam Cultural Window, issue 2 (1998), 2–3.
2. The word pho is pronounced like “fur,” with the .nal “r” dropped.
3. Fen also means “excrement” in Mandarin.
“The Gastronomic Heritage of Vietnam.” Seminar proceedings in Eating and drinking habits and cultural identity (1). New Series No. 55 (125). Hanoi: Vietnamese Studies, 1997.
Huu Ngoc. “Speaking of pho noodles.” The Vietnam Review 4 (Spring–Summer 1998). ed. Huynh Sanh Thong. Hamden, ct, 1998.
Le Hong Tho. “In Praise of ph .” Vietnam Cultural Window, issue 2. Hanoi, 1998.
Interviews with Dinh Cuong, Lien Yeomans, Le Van, David Quong, Thuy
Hanh, Helene Sze McCarthy, Nguyen Ngoc Bich, Nicole Routhier, Le Thiep, Frank Proschan.
Pho Green Papaya Restaurant
“People disagree about the recipe for pho ,” says Lien Yeomans. “They think that it includes several strange secret ingredients. I have tried a few, including sa sung [sea slug, Stichopus japonicus Selenka], sugar cane, Chinese radish, prawn heads, and dried squid, but nothing beats honest meat bones and high-quality fish sauce.”
About 2 pounds beef shin bones and collar bones, cut into chunks
About 1 pound pork collar bones, cut into chunks
1/4 Oxtail, cut into chunks
1 teaspoon Salt
5 quarts Water
1/2 cup Good-quality fish sauce
1 pound Fresh beef brisket, in 1 piece
1 pound Shin beef, in 1 piece
1 pound Beef cartilage (optional)
1 pound Eye fillet steak or trimmed lean top round, in 1 piece
2 large Onions, unpeeled
1 large piece Fresh ginger
1 whole Clove
1 thumb-sized piece stick cinnamon
1 piece Star anise
2 1/4 pounds Fresh rice noodles (banh pho ), or 1 14 pounds dried packaged noodles, cooked
1/4 cup White vinegar
2 Lemons, cut into wedges
1 bunch Scallions, trimmed and washed
1 handful Fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 handful Fresh coriander, finely chopped
2 fresh Red chilies, seeded and cut into strips
2 tablespoons Good-quality unsweetened chili sauce
Garnish: extra bowl of good fish sauce and freshly ground black pepper
Wash all bones including oxtail thoroughly in cold water. Place the bones in a 10-quart stockpot with the salt. Fill the stockpot with water.
Bring it to the boil and blanch the bones.
Pour off the water and wash the bones in cold water again. Return them to the stockpot and add the 5 quarts water and 1/2 cup fish sauce. Bring to the boil and skim off the scum. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 3 hours, skimming regularly to keep the stock completely clear. Meanwhile, trim and wash the brisket, shin, and cartilage and set aside. Raise the heat and bring the stock to the boil. Add the brisket, shin beef, and cartilage. Bring the stock to the boil again, skimming any new scum. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking.
Meanwhile, wash the ginger and pound it once or twice with a mallet. Grill the ginger and one onion until the outer skin of the onion chars. Brush off any flaking onion skin and add the onion and ginger to the stock. Dry roast the cinnamon stick, clove, and star anise. Wrap them in cheesecloth and tie securely with kitchen twine. Add the seasonings to the stock. Simmer for about 1 hour more, or until the meat and the cartilage are tender but not overcooked.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat and cartilage from the stock and place them in a large bowl of ice water to retain the texture of the cooked meat. Leave in the water until the meat is completely cool. Drain.
Slice the meat crosswise into very thin slices. Set aside. Remove the bundle of spices from the stock and discard.
Wash the fillet or top round and pat dry. Slice thinly into small pieces. Set aside.
Peel the remaining onion, cut it in half, and slice the halves thinly. Soak the slices in vinegar. Trim the scallions, thinly slicing the white sections and mincing the green leafy ends.
Meanwhile, continue cooking the bones for one hour more. Adjust the seasonings to taste, strain the stock, and discard the bones. The stock is now ready for use. Reserve unused portions in a tightly sealed container and refrigerate for several days or freeze.
To serve, for each standard bowl of pho allow about 14 pound cooked at rice noodles, 14 pound each of cooked and of raw beef; a handful of thinly sliced raw onion; a sprinkling of minced scallions, mint, and coriander; several white parts of scallions split into long, thin strips; slices of vinegared onions; and 2 cups of stock. Slowly pour the boiling stock over the raw beef to cook it to rare, then add the other accompaniments to the bowl.
Serves 6 to 8.
The recipe makes about 5 to 6 quarts of strained stock. Look for fresh banh pho noodles (or pho rice noodle) at Asian or Vietnamese markets; dried noodles are a fine substitute.
This recipe calls for a typical Asian cooking technique: dry roasting, which means cooking an ingredient—such as herbs, onions, shallots, or lemongrass—in a skillet without oil until it becomes fragrant.