Pho: A Flavorful Vietnamese History

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Pho is a highly popular Vietnamese dish which might as well be a tourist attraction in itself. Anyone who visits the country is sure to have “Pho eating” or “Pho tasting” in his or her itinerary. A simple-looking yet intricate dish of noodles with beef or chicken and two poached eggs, pho is much a part of Vietnam’s history because of its interesting origins.

Some theories state that pho is a variation of the pot-au-feu, a French beef stew dish. Others say it originated from the Chinese beef noodle soup, while some believe that it is really a traditional Vietnamese dish of noodles with buffalo meat. Based on the study of historians, pho became famous in Ha Noi and Nam Dinh, two major Northern cities, during the French colonial period. It was sold in the streets by vendors who carried the dish in a big pot and always hot for full satisfaction of the customers. Throughout time, different versions of pho were created by vendors and home cooks who used ingredients which were the most available and affordable especially being in a time of war wherein most people were hard up.

Vietnam was largely an agricultural country in the 19th century. During that time, cows were raised to help the farmers cultivate the land and with rice farming, not as a source of food. Cows were so important to the economy that the government created laws to protect the said animals, disallowing slaughtering cows for their meat and implementing harsh sanctions for those who will be caught doing so. As such, beef was hard to find and highly expensive. Pho shops usually had to close on Mondays and Fridays because of limited or no supply of beef at all. All in all, eating pho with beef, called pho bo, was a rare practice among the locals. Because of the scarcity and ban on beef, pho chefs had to look for an alternative meat and found it in chicken. Called pho ga, it is a “gentler” version of pho bo with lean or fatty meat used in the dish. But like the original dish, it is just as delicious.

In the 20th century, perception on beef altered when people started to transfer to the cities work in office and factories instead of the usual farm. Here, vendors still sold pho in the streets, but mainly with beef. But this time, the most crucial part of the dish was not so much in the meat than in the broth, which needed to be satisfactory with or without meat. During difficult times like war, people couldn’t afford meat so it was critical that the broth itself was enough to give a full stomach. A good pho broth is clear and aromatic with various herbs and spices like cinnamon, cardamom, coriander seeds, star anise, onion, pepper and cow bones. It must be boiled for six hours for all the ingredients to completely mix. Interestingly, it became like an unwritten rule that pho stores be named according to the owner or founder. Thus, pho shops named Pho Hien, Pho Tin or Pho Co could be seen along the streets.

There is no definite time to eat pho. People eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even as late-night snacks. The traditional version is served with two poached eggs and can be paired with Chinese cullers or oil sticks. The eggs are poached in boiling water and can either be cooked rare, medium or well done depending on the customer’s choice. The cullers should be crispy and crunchy and can be eaten separately or dipped into the broth.

Today, pho has gone through so many transformations since its creation. Some, if not many, high-end restaurants serve it elegantly, with expensive ingredients like foie gras, Kobe and Wagyu beef and price it as high as $50 – 100 per bowl. For most people though, the best pho is still the one sold on the streets, at a cheap $2 but with the amazing taste of the authentic dish with a complimentary outside view.

Vietnam is famous all over the world because of its rich history and culture. It is home to countless spectacular natural sights like pristine beaches, majestic rivers, ornate temples, just to name a few. But pho is just as much a part of Vietnam’s history and culture as its extraordinary taste is something that people all over the world long for, something which the Vietnamese people are truly proud of.