The Vietnamese diaspora brought the addictive allure of pho to the world. But nothing compares to tucking into a steaming bowl on the hot and hectic streets of Vietnam.
No two pho bowls are the same. That’s the genius of Vietnam’s national dish.
Sure, it seems relatively simple; start with a bowl of rice noodles, thinly sliced beef (mostly), crescents of raw onions, pour in the scorching, seductive broth, add lightly blanched bean sprouts, basil, freshly sliced red chilli and thick hoisin sauce to taste.
With a population of around 95 million, even if only one per cent sat down to pho each day, that’s almost one million bowls consumed daily.
Celebrity Chef, Dan Hong rates it up there with the best noodle soups of the world. Like most noodle dishes, it’s the broth that makes all the difference. Hong reckons “the spices within the clean and clear broth really do have almost healing properties and it really makes you feel great when eating it”.
Each restaurant, city and region of Vietnam cooks up a different broth. Upstart Saigon is the undisputed capital of pho. During a State visit, US President, Bill Clinton had his first bowl at Pho 2000 in downtown Saigon, guaranteeing it worldwide fame. Still in Saigon’s centre, Pho Hoa Pasteur has adhered to the same recipe for almost half a decade. Today, it’s still run by the same family. Pho shops around the world are called Pho Hoa and Pho Pasteur as homage to this institution. My favourite is Pho Phu Vuong in Tan Binh District, a magnet for pho connoisseurs despite the 20 minute cab ride from the CBD. Most first time visitors will have two bowls, it’s that good. Run by two sisters who originated from North, it’s almost a 24-hour operation. During daylight it’s a family favourite while after dark, it’s the haunt of late night ravers, prostitutes, trannies, gays, hospitality workers and other night owls.
Popular pho eateries closely guard their recipe. Beef bones cooked in a secret combination of spices, some leave it simmering overnight to extract as much flavour as possible. Onion sweet, fish sauce rich, ginger spiced, star anise perfumed, black pepper scorched. The combination of ingredients yield a unique taste that’s as distinctive as the hand which created it.
The properties of pho take on mythical proportions; it gives you energy at the start of the day and it satisfies after a big night out. In hot weather, it’s said that pho cools the internal systems but in cooler months, it warms you up. Hong reckons “it’s the perfect hangover cure.”
It’s a pick me up dish that can be had anytime of the day. Breakfast and lunch are peak times for pho eateries with another rush late at night.
There’s a bowl for everyone, the meat topping and broth is generally beef, with the most common being pho tai (thinly sliced raw beef), pho nam (thicker sliced cooked beef), pho bo vien (beef balls). There are other varieties; pho ga (chicken) is probably the most popular non-beef version, pho chay (vegetarian) is a standard at Buddhist temples and vegetarian restaurants as many Buddhists observe a non-meat diet fortnightly.
There’s no clear consensus about the origins of pho, though most agree it came from the north. One theory has pho being first served in the 1880s during the French colonisation. TV Chef and former Vietnam Masterchef judge, Luke Nguyen reckons pho bares similarities to the French dish, pot-au-feu. “The essential cooking technique of both dishes is the same. To extract all the natural sweet flavours of the beef bones, meat and vegetables to get a very clean aromatic, tasty broth,” says Nguyen.
In 1954, when Vietnam was split into communist north and democratic south, those who migrated south helped spread the love of pho. Pho bac (northern pho) reflects the austere, considered character of that region, while pho nam (southern pho) embodies the brashness of easy-go-lucky south.
“Northern pho tend towards subtle, light, mild, clean flavours… the south tend towards a sweeter yet sharper flavour from exotic fresh herbs, aromatic spices with Indian, Cambodian and Thai influences” says Nguyen.
With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the fuller flavoured pho spread west thanks to South Vietnamese refugees. If you’re in Hanoi, it’s worth trying northern pho for a closer taste to the original.
How to eat pho
A steaming bowl of pho at your table is just the start, what you add to it will really make it your own, unique experience. After all, no two bowls are the same.
Dunk: Pho tai (raw beef) arrives with thinly sliced red beef on top of your bowl. Grab your chopsticks and immediately submerge into piping hot broth to cook. This goes for other meats to bring it to the same temperature as the rest of your bowl.
Rip: Asian basil is another standard side. Only use the leaves of the basil, discard the hard stems. Tear them before immersing into your broth to release its full flavour.
Zest: Lemon should be squeezed to taste – usually no more than one slice per bowl.
Squeeze: The black paste in the squeeze container is hoisin, some add it to their bowl instead of fish sauce but most squeeze onto one side of a small side dish to dip your meat in. The red squeeze container is chilli sauce, to be added to the other half of the dipping dish for a yin-yang look and contrasting taste.
Spice it up: A few slices of freshly sliced chilli wake up the palate. If your side dish doesn’t come with chilli, look for it on the condiment tray.
Clean: Pour the free hot tea over your chopsticks as an additional wash.