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The indisputable Pho

Vietnamese favourite: pho

Publication Date : 06-01-2014


The Vietnamese pho noodle soup, has been described as many things, including a 'bowl of heaven' and 'Vietnam's contribution to human happiness'


A favourite dish of the Vietnamese, the pho noodle soup, has been described as a "bowl of heaven" by US newspaper, The Huffington Post.

The newspaper listed the dish - which includes rice noodles and thinly sliced beef or chicken in broth, sprinkled with aromatic herbs - as on of the 12 "must try" for globe trotters.

"There are many delectable treats out there, to be sure. Here's just a sampling of some delicacies whose truest, most scrumptious forms you will only come across while travelling," said the article.

The late Vietnamese writer Thach Lam wrote that the local cuisine was a delicacy of the capital. Long queues and people sitting on small plastic stools outside shops selling pho is a common sight in the mornings in Ha Noi.

"Pho is a specialty of Ha Noi. You can taste it in other places. But the pho is better in Ha Noi than anywhere else."

Visit the capital, especially in the early morning, and you're likely to see people queuing up and sitting on plastic stools at street stalls for a hot bowl of pho.

"I have been eating pho almost every morning and a few times throughout the day since I was a little boy," said Ha Noi resident Bui Tuan Hai. He added that although he has tasted the dish in other cities like HCM City, Hong Kong, Sydney and Brisbane, there is nothing like Ha Noi's original pho.

"This is not just a dish, it is a culture that I miss when I am away from home," he said.

For Canadian restaurant owner Donald Berger, a nice large bowl of Ha Noi pho bo (beef noodle) or pho ga (chicken noodle) for breakfast is a great way to start the day with his Vietnamese wife and their son.

"Pho is light, not fattening yet nutritious, delicious and fragrant with Vietnamese spices. It is also really good for lunch and late night," said the chef.

"Vietnamese have a funny saying about rice and pho: Rice is like the wife you have at home, but pho is best outside (meaning the mistress!)," he added.

So renowned is the pho, CNN reporters Helen Clark and Karryn Miller have also recommended it as the first thing travellers to Vietnam must taste.

"What list of Vietnamese cuisine would be complete without pho? It's almost impossible to walk a block in Vietnam's major cities without bumping into a crowd of hungry patrons slurping noodles at a makeshift pho stand," they were quoted saying.

Cultural icon

Pho is considered a national treasure; so much so that the soupy dish even warranted a conference several years ago, covering the social, culinary and historic aspects of the dish.

"Pho was very special, almost a 'status' food. We loved it because it had everything we valued – rice noodles, broth, meat and vegetables. It was complete, nutritious, infinitely delicious and yet so easy to digest that we could eat it morning and night, day after day," said Huu Ngoc, an expert on Vietnamese culture.

In his book Bat Pho Hoa Giai (literally translated as pho - conciliation in a bowl of noodles), Ngoc uses the dish to illustrate a meeting between American and Vietnamese war veterans in the capital city.

"Pho – a specialty of Hanoians – has been presented to every corner of the material and spiritual life of human beings and has witnessed current affairs… That's a food of a cultural category," he wrote.

In their jointly written book Vietnamese Street Food, Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl describe the pho as "glorious and undoubtedly the most famous and quintessential Ha Noi street food", and as "Vietnam's contribution to human happiness".

However, it remains a mystery who created the dish, and many theories abound.

In another book, Pho, a Specialty of Ha Noi (2006), co-written with American author Lady Borton, Ngoc indicates that the birthplace of pho was in the village of Van Cu in Nam Dinh Province. Villagers do not know who created it. But they say that in 1925 a villager named Van moved to Ha Noi and opened a pho stall.

The dish was also adopted in the south in the late 1950s, when it crossed the border of the then-divided Vietnam. However, the recipe changed in the process. In HCM City and other places in the Southern region, the dish is served in larger bowls, with the addition of aromatic herbs and fresh bean sprouts. It's often served with extra condiments such as sugar and hoisin sauce.

However, To Hai, who considers himself a "pho purist", in order to taste the best, the dish should stay true to the Hanoian style: a simple, soup that has a deep, rich, meaty and lightly spiced flavour, with a subtle hint of sweetness.

"The secret to a great pho is the broth – the broth will make or break your soup," he said


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