Pho is the essence of Vietnamese cuisine, the hearth at its center. Traditionally prepared on weekends, and eaten for lunch or even breakfast, pho is simply defined as a hearty soup made with beef marrow bones and meat and stocked with rice noodles. But the many variations and subtle flavors within this base make pho versatile and a stepping stone for invention.
For home cooks, pho can be a family treat, something to cook long and slow (at least two hours to prepare the broth). But pho is also a popular street food throughout Vietnam, with slight variations between the Saigon and Hanoi styles. Its name may derive from phấn, which is a plate of sliced rice cake and boiled beef, or the French for beef stew, pot-au-feu.
THE ORIGINS OF PHO
Despite its ubiquity in Vietnam, which comes with the sense that it has been cooked for centuries, pho in its current incarnation dates back only to the early 20th century. That is not to say that the people of Vietnam have not cooked a beef noodle soup for centuries, but pho as we know it began in the Dinh Province, outside of Hanoi, more specifically the villages of Vân Cù and Dao Cù (or Giao Cù) in Đông Xuân commune, Nam Trực District, Nam Định Province, according to Andrea Nguyen, who wrote a brief history of pho noodle soup. Pho has a much longer tradition in these villages, but was popularized during the French Colonial period. Its history as a proper street food dates to this time, when it was sold in the early morning and early evening by vendors who balanced pots for pho, ingredients and bowls in portable cabinets on either end of stout sticks, called gánh phở. They were recognizable from their felt hats, called mũ phở. The first recorded full-time, non-portable pho shops were simple wooden stands in Hanoi, one owned by a Vietnamese family, the other by Chinese. Two more opened up in 1918, while competition heated up in 1925, when a villager from Vân Cù spiced up the pho scene with a stand serving the Nam Định style of the popular soup. By the 1930s the mobile, stick-carrying street vendors had been all but phased out, in favor of sit-down establishments. But while pho was hugely popular in northern Vietnam, it was hardly known in the south before 1954, when the Partition of Vietnam sent around a million Vietnamese heading south. They brought pho with them, and the traditional recipes began to expand to include flavors and spices associated with southern Vietnam (integrating bean sprouts, lime wedges, Hoisin sauce, and cinnamon basil. Around this time pho restaurants were nationalized in North Vietnam, and the rice noodles were made from old rice, while street vendors were obliged to make their noodles out of imported potato flour. In a bowl of pho we have a miniature history of 20th century Vietnam.
These days, at least in major American cities, pho restaurants mean big business, and have gone mainstream. A 2005 report estimated that Vietnamese restaurants, where pho is the main attraction, earned some $500 million per year. Quite a step up for an inexpensive street food.
PHO RECIPE AT HOME
When it came time for me to try making this delicacy at home, I had to decide whether I would aim for the Hanoi or the Saigon styles. Northern, Hanoi style features wider rice noodles, lots of green onion, and limited garnishes: often just a dash of vinegar or fish sauce and some chili. Southern, Saigon style is a bit sweeter and more herbaceous, with a variety of garnishes and additional spices. I aimed for Hanoi style, which felt a bit more like the source recipe. At a good Asian food market, you can actually buy a spice packet with all you need to prepare an authentic pho. That can be helpful, since your standard Western kitchen will not likely be stocked with copious supplies of star anise, Saigon cinnamon and black cardamom. The hardcore recipes prepare a broth made from chopped oxtails, bone and all, and this can also be tricky to locate. In essence, you need sections of beef (flank steak, for example, or brisket) and bones with the marrow in them, which will ooze out and flavor the broth. Charred onions and ginger are the other primary flavorings, and rice noodles make the soup into a meal. A variety of seasonings add luster and specificity to your own style of pho. The first time I tried pho, I made the mistake of dropping in the spices without first wrapping them in cheesecloth. Cinnamon sticks are lovely as flavoring, but not so much fun to accidentally crunch when you’re sipping soup. If you want to go nuts, you can roast your ginger and onion over an open fire before adding them, but I am a relatively lazy cook, and so this is the sort of step that I am liable to omit. Some variation on the following spices will be welcome additions: fennel, cinnamon, black cardamom, ginger, clove, star anise, coriander seed, fish sauce, Hoison sauce, sweet basin, chili slices, sriracha, cilantro, lime wedges, and bean sprouts.
Pho is easy to make. About two hours to simmer the beef broth and spices, and then the noodles, beef, and garnish can be added in the last twenty minutes. Provided you can get some of the more exotic ingredients (which these days in cities are not so hard to find), you can enjoy a steaming bowl of Vietnamese history, wherever you may be.
The image at the top of the page shows the famous Vietnamese chef Australia based Luke Nguyens, while eating Pho, one of his most famous dishes.