Mexicans have tacos, Japanese have sushi and Germans have bratwurst. Vietnamese? We have phở. Pho has become the staple Vietnamese food that has now been exported almost everywhere. But from all my time eating pho in various Vietnamese restaurants in Vietnam, in Canada and also making it myself in South Africa, it never tastes like it does the way Northern Vietnamese make it, specifically people from Hanoi or Nam Định.
Pho originally came from Nam Định in the 1920s, when the French were still around and called Vietnam “Indochine”. Many people think pho was inspired by French cuisine, particularly a dish named pot-au-feu, since “pho” and “feu” (French for fire) sound similar. You can read up more about the history of pho on Wikipedia since I won’t delve into it much. What I want to talk about my personal experience with the dish.
Pho is simply a bowl of broth with rice noodles served with boiled beef, it can be any cut of beef or chicken. However, depending on your geographical location, it can be served so differently!
It’s all in the broth! A decent pho restaurant would have at least these 3 elements:
- a clear broth, obtained by constantly scooping out the impurities floating on the surface of the pot
- a pho fragrance coming from the toasted cinnamon, star anise, cardamon, sometimes coriander seeds, filling the entire restaurant
- the sweet taste of the broth from slow boiling the beef bones for hours or even days
My parents grew up in the period shortly after Vietnam was unified: a period when the country was still very much secluded from the rest of the world and when times were still difficult. They often told me about how a typical breakfast for them growing up would be leftover rice from the previous night’s dinner combined with just the pho broth bought from a local vendor. This is what makes the dish what it is!
A few years ago, a big restaurant chain called Pho24 tried the concept of a high-end pho restaurant but keeping the dish just the same way as I described. Unfortunately, they aren’t around anymore and the reason is very simple: they didn’t have the 3 elements I listed above and they didn’t understand that Vietnamese people will never consider pho as a high-end meal and would never spend more than VND 50 000 for a bowl of pho (roughly 3 Canadian dollars).
It used to be sold by street hawkers (gánh hàng rong) decades ago until the vendors slowly switched to a more fixed option and provided small plastic stools for their patrons.
By appearance, the Southern pho is different only in that it is served with a side plate of Vietnamese herbs, bean sprouts, thinly sliced onion and sliced red peppers for people to add. However, by taste, it has more of a Chinese influence and the broth is quite different.
Southerners have different taste and prefer everything a bit sweeter. However, this sweetness doesn’t come from slow-boiling the beef bones for hours but from added sugar in the broth. I also don’t find it as fragrant. If you are ever in Sai Gon and want to look for a restaurant that serves Northern-style pho, look for any restaurant with the “Phở Nam Định” signs. If you want to try Southern-style pho, look for “Phở Ông Hùng” restaurants.
Funny enough, the first thing I ate when I landed in Canada at midnight was a hot bowl of pho but to my surprise, it was much more similar to the Southern style than the Northern, also served with herbs on the side.
Majority of pho restaurants in Canada are run by Vietnamese from the South who were refugees and escaped the Northern regime when the country was unified. So that explained the taste of the broth for me. However, something I failed to understand at first was why it came in multiple sizes: from a small little bowl to a cauldron-size extra-large. I thought to myself: such a North American thing, quantity over quality. In Vietnam, pho was only served as breakfast or as a light meal but those hungry and looking for a full meal would rarely choose it since it isn’t filling enough. However, I learned that in Canada people would eat that just for dinner hence the different sizes.
The second culture shock for me regarding pho was when I discovered in a restaurant that North Americans have again put their twist on this traditional Vietnamese dish. Quail eggs and shrimp!? Absolute no-no! They call it pho but it is simply linguine-shaped rice noodles with broth and they have decided to add all sorts of meat to the dish, just to make it more filling, regardless of how it would change the taste.
I guess this is one of those instances where I would prefer to be old-fashion. So here is what I would recommend if you want to experience pho the way I believe it should be: linguine rice noodles with beef broth, beef and/or chicken in the soup with some chopped green onions and fresh coriander. If you want it a bit more filling, order a plate of fried breadsticks (quẩy) as side dish and enjoy 🙂