Pho is a legendary food. A national icon. Reams have been written about it. Thousands of hours of cooking and travel shows have celebrated it. Ecstatic, breathless accounts of slurping broth and squeezing limes abound. It is perhaps Vietnam’s most important cultural export, and in many ways has been the lifeblood of the country, powering it through some very difficult times. To many chefs and food critics around the world, it is perhaps the best dish on the planet.
So how did this culinary genius come into being?
I had always just assumed that pho had a long and deep history in Vietnam, like it was commissioned by a hungry emperor, millennia ago, conceived by a team of geniuses, or that it was the serendipitous accident of some farmer who let some cow bones and cilantro fall into a vat of hot water. Maybe something involving a mythical animal, or a vision from the gods?
Actually, to my surprise, I learned that pho is essentially a very Vietnamese version of a French soup.
It is also one of countless examples of Vietnam’s uncanny ability to absorb things that foreigners bring over, and brilliantly turn them into its own.
‘Feu’ becomes ‘pho’
Most historians agree that the word pho is a translation of the French pot au feu, which means ‘pot on a fire,’ a kind of beef stew the French brought over in the late 19th century. It was called that because of how long the marrow-rich bones would sit on the fire simmering, a crucial part of making that magical broth (some pho cooks, such as at 8 Hang Trong in the Old Quarter, evidently cook the broth for 12 hours before serving it).
Until the French came over in the late 19th century, cows were traditionally used to till the fields, not killed for food. However, as more French people started showing up, so also did more cows, and the process of taking the bones and making stocks, throwing in a bunch of common, local herbs and spices, caught on quickly. From its origins in the Nam Dinh/Hanoi region it soon became the official food of common people across the country.
Blissful Broth in a Turbulent Century
By the 1930s, pho gained recognition by Vietnamese dictionaries, and chicken started being used instead of beef. This caused a bit of a kerfuffle at the time, but pho ga became widely accepted soon enough. This was the time that pho developed into it’s current echelon of goodness.
During certain periods when food rations had been imposed, pho was seen as a decadent and wasteful use of rice, and often banned. It had to be sold on the down low by mobile cooks. If these surreptitious, speakeasy street sellers hadn’t kept this underground trade going, pho as we know it might not have survived some of those more turbulent years in Vietnam’s recent history.
I once read an interview with a Vietnamese soldier who remarked that eating pho every morning was essentially like eating a big bowl of national pride, sustaining not only the peoples’ spirit of independence, but the literal physical strength needed to keep fighting foreign colonisers. That is indeed a pretty damn powerful soup.
Throughout the 20th century, pho spread southwards as people migrated away from the Communist north, bringing it with them. With the new, more agriculturally-rich environments in the south, various ingredients were added to the mix, such as Thai basil, bean sprouts, hoisin sauce and meatballs. There is a considerate difference of opinion and certain amount of hairsplitting among most people when it comes to the question of whether the northern style or the southern style is better, and as to what can be added or taken away from it and still call it pho.
The World Learns of Pho
After 1975, when thousands were leaving Vietnam and coming to North America and Europe, pho became an internationally celebrated food, and is known abroad as the national dish. More and more pho restaurants and Vietnamese markets opened up, and today there are an estimated 2000 pho restaurants just in the U.S. and Canada alone. It has become just as much a symbol of national identity for Vietnamese who grew up in Los Angeles or Paris as it has for Vietnamese at home.
It will be interesting to see how this iconic dish evolves in the decades to come, and what innovations that genius chefs both here and around the world come up with; fusing it with different styles and adding other, more local ingredients, etc.
The history of pho is a great example of how cultural traditions (like how to cook a damn good soup) diffuse and interact with other traditions, in an ongoing cycle of cultural evolution and change. It is a testament to the cosmopolitan comfort and ease with which Vietnamese people have interacted with foreigners and foreign ideas throughout their history. It’s too bad that it took colonialism for pho to be born, but at least something good came out of the whole situation.
And in a globalised age, it is with glee that I read of Burger King closing locations across Vietnam while my local pho stand down the street has a line on most mornings. This dizzyingly complicated yet infinitely comforting soup is not going anywhere, and hopefully, for centuries to come, we will still be street-side, on tiny plastic stools, throwing in the fresh-cut chilies, the limes, the cilantro.
Civilisation itself depends on such things.