“I know our country has high mountains, long rivers, deep seas and heroic people who have built up a glorious history. But I also know our country has pho”
Nguyen Tuan // Vietnamese author
Origin of Pho
The uncertainty about the origin of the national dish Phở (pronounced: feu?) led a delegation of the European Commission met in 2002 at a seminar to discuss this issue in Hanoi. The meeting is inconclusive about the origin of Pho. To this day leading journalists, writers, chefs and anthropologists mingle in this discussion.
Pho would have been born in North Vietnam, in the city of Nam Dinh. China and France occupied Vietnam in respectively 1000 and 100 years and both countries would have left a mark on the development of Pho. The theory is that Pho was created by the Chinese ingredients rice noodles (fan), ginger and star anise and / or by the French dish pot au feu. Some thinkers can be fierce about their own ideas. Eventually, they all relate to the turbulent history and ancient culture of Vietnam.
In addition to the origin of Pho, there is also the debate about how the best Pho is made. North Vietnamese, of course, swear by the ‘original’ and modest Pho, with few trimmings and seasonings. They don’t appreciate the abundant use of fresh herbs and hoisin sauce of the South Vietnamese. How the best Pho tastes just depends what you’re used to, how hungry you are, what your mood is and with whom and where you eat. There is no single comprehensive recipe, as long as you take into account the essence of Pho.
A bowl of Pho seems a simple noodle soup and doesn´t have rich imagination at first glance. But Pho has a very complex and intrinsic taste. The most important herb in Pho is star anise, but the onions or shallots that are first grilled unpeeled make the characteristic odor of Pho really come to life. Fresh ginger, whether or not grilled, only serves to give the broth a subtle spicy taste. Adding cinnamon and cardamom varies by region and personal taste. The most important thing is the creation of the perfect stock through a very long cooking process (8-14 hours) with the right mix of beef. No tame pieces of beef, but ox tails, ribs, shanks, shoulder and bones, lots of bones, which loosen during the slow cooking process and give the broth a rich flavor. The broth should remain clear and this can only be achieved with proper care.
What is served alongside a bowl of Pho depends on the region and personal preference. Chili sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce and lemon are the flavor enhancers. In the bowl of Pho all the toppings are already present like coriander, spring onion, red peppers, culantro, red and white onions, whose flavors will bind with the meat and broth. Thai basil and bean sprouts follow last. But the order of serving is personal.
Globalization of Pho
Vietnamese soldiers were already deployed by the French colonists to fight in Europe during World War I. During World War II there were more Vietnamese sent to France. The Vietnamese who had managed to survive after the war got the French citizenship and were allowed to settle in France or French colonies. Pho was thus exported to Europe, the Middle East, Micronesia and later in the 1950s and 1960s in the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Pondicherry and New Caledonia.
The second movement was caused by the division of North and South Vietnam in 1954. More than 1 million Vietnamese fled the communist North. Pho was introduced in South Vietnam and refined. The extra fresh herbs and sauces were added to the dish.
The third movement came from the (boat) refugees who wanted to flee the communist regime after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. They ended up all over the world, from the Netherlands to Australia and Japan to Israel.
The diaspora of Vietnamese people is about 4 million over five continents, of which more than half live in the United States. The largest Vietnamese community in the U.S. is located in southern California. There, Pho is also popularized among Americans.