Pork, beef and goat

Pork, beef and goat

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
34 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705262
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

Pho: Vietnam in a bowl

Phở gia truyen in Bat Dan Street, Hanoi, might well be the only place in Vietnam where locals form an orderly queue rather than something resembling a rugby scrum. The traditional phở restaurant, now run by its third-generation owner, started the queuing system during the lean years following the Vietnam War, as this made it easier to check rationing cards. Now, after decades of economic liberalisation, the punters are still patiently lining up for what is rumoured to be the best phở bo in the city. It is the fear of not being served their daily fix of beef noodle soup that keeps them in line.

This fragrant soup, in principle, is a rather simple dish: a clear, aromatic beef broth, with chewy rice noodles, and featuring beef cooked à la minute (phở tai) or boiled or some dried beef (phở chin), and rounded off with spring onions, cumquat juice and chilli sauce.

But in reality phở is anything but simple: there are myriad variations and philosophies on how to achieve that perfect balance of tastes and textures.

The Vietnamese are passionate about phở. Where to eat it? How to cook it? Questions which are mulled over in ways that border on the obsessive. More than any other dish, this soup has come to embody the essence of Vietnamese cuisine.

The status of this iconic soup is even more astonishing when one considers that it has been around for only a century. The earliest record of this dish seems to be by the author Jean Marquet, who claimed he heard a beef noodle soup seller yell ‘Yoc pheu’ on the streets of Hanoi in 1919. It is also known that a villager from the Nam Dinh province opened the first phở. stall in Hanoi in 1925.

‘The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl,’ exclaims a character in Camilla Gibb’s Vietnam novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement. This sentiment is more than just hyperbole, as the dish does indeed marry Chinese and French influences to create something uniquely Vietnamese.

Until the early 20th century, chicken or duck soups with either wheat or rice noodles were a common offering by Vietnamese and Chinese food vendors. Phở started its victory march through the stomachs of the country in Nam Dinh province, the centre of the French colonial textile industry. The French introduced beef to the local diet when bones and beef scraps from their butchers found their way into local soup kitchens.

Another departure from traditional Vietnamese cooking was charring the onions and ginger before adding them to the stock — a French cooking technique that adds colour and sweetness to the broth.

Although not partial to most Vietnamese food, the French colonisers eagerly embraced phở, calling it ‘soupe tonkinoise’. They played up the French influence, even claiming that its name might have been a phonetic copy of the French dish pot-au-feu. However, this seems to be drawing a very long bow, given that the name is most likely derived from the rice noodles banh phở, which over time became shorthand for the entire dish.

After the French left, the Vietnamese reclaimed phở as their very own, and by some it was imbued with potent political symbolism and commentary. Writer Nguyen Tuan published a famous article in 1957, for example, in which he played with the image of the meatless phở, implicitly criticising the food policy of the government at the time. The essay landed the author in such trouble that the magazine was taken off the shelves, and Nguyen Tuan was made to publicly apologise for using the national dish in such a scandalous way.

Today, phở remains one of the most recognised Vietnamese dishes. It can be eaten any time of the day, but in Vietnam makes a perfect breakfast — offering both a balance of protein and carbohydrates to provide energy for a busy day, and a salty broth to rehydrate after sweating through a sultry summer night.

In any case, it is definitely best eaten at street level, rubbing shoulders with fellow punters, hunched over steaming bowls, slurping the noodles first before they become soggy, then picking at the beef.

Not part of a fancy banquet, phở is a quintessentially Vietnamese pleasure, available to all.

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