Phở (Noodle Soup) is arguably the most famous Vietnamese dish. With the start of the Vietnamese diaspora in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and the unification of Vietnam, Phở was carried lovingly with the country-less immigrants throughout every corner of the world. I have personally eaten Phở in over 20 countries over the last 30 years, some are good most are forgettable. My touchstone for Phở is my late mum’s homemade Phở from Wales, made with oxtail and shinbone. Phở was our family’s equivalent of the British’s “Sunday Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding” in our Vietnamese outpost in South Wales. So Phở holds an important place in this Foodie heart. And ever since her passing 11 years ago, this Odysseus has been seeking that steaming Ambrosia broth of life. Enough of the nostalgia, for those who don’t know, Phở is a noodle soup that is popular across Vietnam. It is served in a large bowl of cooked rice noodles covered in a rich broth made from beef bone, shallots, old ginger, star anise, cinnamon stick, cardamom, pepper and fish sauce (the broth is simmered for 6-8 hours). The soup is garnished with lime, spring onion, fresh herbs such as coriander, basil and mint, as well as fresh chilies for taste. The relatively short history of Phở (~100 year of history) parallels the history of Vietnam. This is not a hyperbole; the evolution of Phở followed three key events in the last 100 years of Vietnamese history. 1) The colonization Vietnam under French role since 19th Century, 2) the separation of Vietnam into North Vietnam and South Vietnam in 1954 and 3) the fall of Saigon in 1975.
- Under French rule – Phở was invented under French rule, where beef came into the diet in Vietnam (French and Elite Vietnamese, leaving the discarded leftovers such as bone available to the people), generally before that the Vietnamese people did not slaughter cows for food since cows were more valuable as beasts of burden. Also the word “Phở ” is a corruption of the French “feu” or “fire.” Phở could be a Vietnamese adaptation of the French soup “pot au feu” or French beef stew, which the French brought to Vietnam when they came to rule the country.
- Division of Vietnam – Phở went South with the separation of Vietnam and evolved independently from its Northern root
- Phở Bắc is simple with a few slices of rare beef blanched in hot broth, rice noodles and broth. Northern Phở has a deep salty flavor with a hint of spice. This is due to the harsher and poorer environment of Northern Vietnam.
- Phở Nam is more elaborate, with lots of herbs, different cuts of meat such as brisket, tripe, and meatballs. It’s served garnished with bean sprouts, cilantro, green onion, basil, and saw tooth herbs. Southern Phở is sweeter with strong anise, cinnamon and clove flavors.
- The Fall of Saigon – At the end of the Vietnam War, millions of Vietnamese (most from Southern Vietnam) immigrated across the world. Phở recipes follow these migrants and were introduced to western customers and in the process adapted to local ingredients and tastes. My mum’s Phở reflected the Welsh environment where we settled 40 years ago.
For the Foodies out there, if you have eaten Phở either in Houston TX, Westminster CA or may be in Florence Italy and enjoyed it, then sample Phở in it ancestral home of Hanoi, Vietnam if you get a chance. I will share my mum’s Phở recipe as well as some of my favorite Phở places in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in the next post.