Reflections of Vietnam in a Bowl of Pho

Image © NanamiOu/Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Andrea Nguyen is one of the country’s leading voices on Asian cuisine and the author of the acclaimed Asian Dumplings, the James Beard-nominated Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, and more. She’s most recently the author of The Pho Cookbook and joins Signature to take us down the cultural road of pho, from its Chinese roots to its civil rivalry to its ongoing evolution.

You can love a dish but not really know it until you pause to ponder its depths. I fell for pho when I was five years old in Saigon, the city where I was born. By that age, I was capable of wielding chopsticks and spoon to empty the bowl of fragrant broth, springy noodles, and flavorful beef. I was hooked and determined.

My family fled Saigon right before the communist takeover in April 1975. We gained freedom in our new home in San Clemente, California, but we lost access to beloved pho joints. To satisfy our cravings and expat souls, my mother brewed pho on weekends so we could enjoy a traditional Vietnamese breakfast after Sunday morning Mass. She taught me how to make pho that could rival its restaurant kin, and I moved on to write recipes for Vietnam’s national soup as well as to teach many others to make it themselves. Over the years and culminating in the research for my latest publication, The Pho Cookbook, I realized that my lifelong food love was a rich culinary and cultural gem.

The history of pho is somewhat murky like a poorly made broth. What’s clear is this: It was born in and around Hanoi in the early 1900s. At that time, French colonials ordered the slaughtering of cows (traditionally draft animals in Vietnam) and the leftover bones and tough cuts were deftly turned into a new dish by resourceful street vendors.

The original pho was simple: thinly sliced beef in broth with rice noodles. It was mostly eaten by coolies who worked on the Red River. Given Hanoi’s colonial urbanization, according to historian Erica Peters, the popularity of pho spread throughout the city. Soon there were pho fans from all walks of life.

Images of pho street vendors published from 1908 to 1910 by colonial administrator Henri Oger were identified by Chinese characters as sellers of niu rou fen, beef with noodles. At that time, the romanized version of Vietnamese was not yet formally adopted. Vietnam’s language was still formally expressed in Chinese, the result of the two countries being neighbors and China having dominated Vietnam on and off for a thousand years.

pho-vendorNevertheless, some people have conjectured that pho, because of its pronunciation as “fuhh,” bears a resemblance to feu (“fire” in French), as in French pot-au-feu, the boiled beef dinner. The terms may sound alike but pho doesn’t involve lots of vegetables like the French dish. The charring of ginger and onion or shallot may be a plausible connection. Overall, it’s difficult to accept that the Vietnamese soup directly descended from French cuisine.

Around 1930, a Vietnamese language dictionary defined pho as a dish of narrowly sliced noodles and beef, its name having been derived from the Viet pronunciation of fen, the Chinese term for flat rice noodle. No one can claim pho but the Vietnamese because it was created on Vietnamese soil via cultures rubbing shoulders. It was genius make-do cooking.

Aside from being a marvelous fusion food, pho also got swept up in Vietnam’s tumultuous history. In a 1934 ode to pho, satirist Tu Mo deployed it as a tool to resist French occupation and inspire national pride. Pho was also used for espionage. During the Vietnam War, a Saigon pho shop served as a communist hub for organizing part of the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The noodle soup mirrors the rivalry between traditional and conservative northern Vietnam (Hanoi) and progressive and free-wheeling southern Vietnam (Saigon). Hanoi-style pho is served in modest portions with few garnishes. The flavor is savory more than sweet. Diners are expected to savor pho’s elegant simplicity. Northerners scoff at the large, sweet-savory bowls of Saigon-style pho accompanied by platters of produce. They wince when diners squirt chile sauce and hoisin sauce into their soup. Southerners chide northern pho for being meager and tasting bland. Despite pho’s reputation as a democratic, have-it-your way food, the regional pho fight rages on.saigon pho vs hanoi phoIn America, interest in pho has risen exponentially as it has moved from the margins to the mainstream. It’s a comforting, healthy, restorative, and friendly food. It has become the focus of novels, art exhibits, rap songs, Kickstarter campaigns, and cultural debates. Chefs and home cooks are replicating classics and creating new riffs.

Pho blasted out of Vietnam in 1975 with refugees like my family and over four decades later, it continues to evolve as a unique amalgam of cultures. The difference today is that there’s an even greater diversity of people involved in shaping the future of pho.