Tuesday, September 25The Voice of London

A short history of Vietnamese noodle soup “Pho”

Pho could be described as the national dish of Vietnam and now it’s available to enjoy London. There are several options of Vietnamese restaurants in London, such as Pho&Bun in Soho or Cay Tre in Old Street.

Reporter: Phuong Thu Nguyen | Sub-editor: Maria-Christina Chougkaeva

Vietnamese Beef Pho (credit: Phuong Thu Nguyen)

Breakfast in many countries might be a bowl of cold cereal. However, Vietnamese would like to kickstart their day with an aromatic hot noodle soup broth, fulfilled with different flavour and texture to awaken the morning senses.

The cuisine in this country differs significantly from north to south. Rice could be considered as the symbol of Vietnam. The country could grow enough rice to supply nearly 100 million people. Certainly, rice plays an important role in almost every Vietnamese dish served for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert (cake is made of rice), believe me.

Instead of saying “Bless you” in response to a sneeze, the Vietnamese say “cơm muối”, meaning “rice and salt”. It is a way of blessing for the abundance. They think these are crucial elements for a full happy life, and they will inevitably bring you good health. Vietnamese people take rice really “serious” when they transform it into various forms such as sticky rice, rice paper wrappers, rice powder, or noodle Pho that we all love.

When talking about the real “Pho”, it is hard to describe it. Pho is treated as a feeling and a familiar taste for Vietnamese people. I can still record the smell of the morning bowl of Pho in Vietnam. As for me, during my childhood, I adored a bowl of Pho like no other dish. Nothing had the same taste. My mother says it was the only breakfast dish that I ever enjoyed as a child. For many Vietnamese people, “Pho” is something they associate with their home.

The history and evolution of Pho

Vietnamese Beef Pho ingredients
Vietnamese Beef Pho ingredients (credit: Phuong Thu Nguyen)

Pho could be seen as a dish that is steep in the art of tradition, and closely tied to Vietnam that the history of pho could be in parallel with the history of the country in the last hundred years.

Despite the fact that pho is to please the tables of people from different heritages, there is none of any specific and accurate documents or notes about how pho came down on Earth. An article by the restaurateur and author Mai Pham’s on pho, stated that there is nothing written about the early history of pho. Today’s stories are all oral traditions handed down by elders. However, it is agreed by many experts in Vietnamese cuisine that the birth of pho began in Nam Dinh or Hanoi. This created two signature types of pho named after the cities above. It is also believed that pho appeared during the time when the French colonized Vietnam in the late 1880’s.

Andrea Nguyen once said in the SpiceLines interview that before the period that French conquered Vietnam, Vietnamese people did not slaughter cows for food. Instead, they worshiped them and along with buffalo, they were used to till rice fields.

The word “pho” originated from the French word “feu” which means “fire”. A myth claims, that pho could be a Vietnamese version adapted from the famous French soup “pot au feu” (French beef stew). In fact, there are many Vietnamese words based on foreign languages mostly from English, French and Chinese. They shifted  them into different forms with a Vietnamese accent. “Pot of feu” literally means “pot on fire” demonstrating the long hours required to create the French soup. The coincidence between both dishes is the way beef bones are boiling and simmered in water on low heat for at least three hours to create the perfect soup base. The scum and foam formed by excess grease from the bone marrow are skimmed and discarded.


Pho of the North vs the South

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(Credit: Phuong Thu Nguyen)

Many cuisine experts agree that the original birthplace of pho is from northern Vietnam. Hanoi has always been the most vibrant capital of politics, economics, and culture of Vietnam since 1010. The period of the rule of Nguyen dynasty, the capital was moved to Hue in central Vietnam.  Pho Hanoi (Pho Bac- Pho of the North) has an intense and delicate flavour that is entirely different from Pho of the South (Pho Nam). The main sprinkle feature of Pho Bac is on the taste of its clear and simple broth. The star anise, cinnamon and other spices are commonly used in pho served as subtle undertones of flavour rather than complex layers. The irreplaceable ingredients in Pho Bac are rice noodles and thinly sliced rare beef cooked quickly in the hot broth.

(Credit: Phuong Thu Nguyen)

After the  World War II, the French rule did not work in Vietnam. However, series of events occurred leading to the separation of Vietnam into two parts, North and South Vietnam in 1954. North Vietnam kept in Hanoi for the Communist side, and South Vietnam is a democracy centered in Saigon. It is said that the Vietnamese people moved from North to the South bringing their pho recipes to their family in the south. Food is important in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese put their taste to a lavish level to create pho south. They use more spices and  different beef parts or chicken in order for pho to taste in different ways. Bean sprouts are used as topping in order to reconcile the flavours and bring a natural sweetness to it. South Vietnamese enjoy their food sweet and  they usually add a pinch of sugar to their dishes. They are also are fans of adding fish sauce or even hoisin sauce to flavour their  pho.

In any case, the fact remains that pho has captured the fascination of people from all over the world because of the appeal of its distinct and layered flavours. Thanks to the strength of globalisation, you’ll find a great taste of pho whether in the UK, the US or in Europe.



Be happy and love Pho!