The first thing you need to know about pho is that it is a light, exquisite Vietnamese soup. The second thing you need to know is that it is pronounced fuh. Only a handful of ingredients come together to make its magic: broth, a type of rice noodle called banh pho, meat and herbs. (Most menus will carry vegetarian options as well, either absent a protein or with tofu, in a vegetable broth.) Those are the basics. If chicken soup is a hearty, stoutly seasoned meal that gives you the stamina to trudge back out into the cold winter night and push your sled dogs to their limit, pho is the meal you have when you need to be refreshed, whether mentally, spiritually or physically. It revitalizes and uplifts. In taste and texture, it is the opposite of gumbo; pho is like some sprightly tea, with meat.
Restaurants specializing in pho have proliferated across America in recent years the same way sushi restaurants multiplied in the ’90s: from that one place on the outskirts of town, to suddenly outnumbering McDonald’s franchises. There are three Vietnamese places within walking distance of my house. (And unlike McDonald’s, I bet their ice cream machines are never broken.) Pho first arrived in the United States in the 1970s, brought by refugees from war-ravaged Vietnam. The lack of authentic ingredients available here at the time, together with racial and cultural discrimination and a hard financial situation for immigrants, meant the dish took years to find its footing. For decades, pho shops featured exclusively in Vietnamese communities. Now, generations removed from the war, and as first- and second-generation Vietnamese American chefs are better positioned economically to introduce their stunning cuisine to a wider and more appreciative clientele, pho is everywhere. And not just in major cities, like Houston, that have large populations of Vietnamese descent, but also on main streets in small towns. America seems to have figured out what it was missing all those years, and the culinary world is better for it.
Though I make a mean bowl of cereal, I’m no chef, so I asked Marc Ardoin, corporate chef for Rouses Markets, what makes the dish special. He answered without a moment’s hesitation: “I think what brings most people to it is the ginger. It’s just a differently flavored broth than I think many people are used to, but they immediately love,” he says. “Its broth isn’t seasoned the way you would prepare the broth for an American-style chicken soup. It’s not necessarily made with carrots and celery and bay leaves. It is simmered with ginger and garlic, and that gives pho a completely different flavor profile. And at the end, adding in basil and green onion and cilantro: It’s just such a great flavor.”
THE STORY OF PHO
Pho is an invention of the 20th century, though its origin story is murky. It seems most likely to have emerged near Hanoi, with some form being born simultaneously near Da Nang. Variations of the recipe and the ways it is enjoyed add up quickly as you cross the latitudes of Vietnam, with the Hanoi and Saigon styles treated by their respective partisans the way someone from New Orleans might “respect” gumbo served in Los Angeles. Sure, they might share the name, but let’s not kid ourselves about who is preparing it correctly. It’s hard to know for certain how westernized the dish has become. Do rice noodles in the United States compare with those served in Vietnam? How do domestic vegetables and herbs — whose flavors are formed by local water, farming habits and terroir — differ from those in Vietnam? Moreover, region and culture affect food indelibly. In college, I took Chinese as my foreign language, and my teacher remarked once that she had never heard of egg rolls until she came to the United States. I have never trusted a menu since. Order jambalaya in Gonzales and then in New Orleans. The impostor is red-orange. Lasagna is just multilayered pizza made with noodles instead of bread. All food is a lie. Wake up, sheeple.
What is clear is that French colonialism played a big role in the development of pho over time. The short version is that, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, France slowly introduced Catholicism to Vietnam, its trading partner, until the Vietnamese emperor in 1825 said, OK, please stop bringing missionaries here — we’re good on religion, and you’re affecting our culture. The French said, No, no, you really ought to give our church a chance, and the Vietnamese said, No really. Stop! And started imprisoning said missionaries. The French said, Well, we’ll just see about that, and over time sent in the navy and conquered the place, ruling the region as a colonial territory called French Indochina. (This fell apart in 1954, but the United States stepped in and that went…poorly.)
What does this have to do with soup? Well, with the French colonialists came a huge appetite for beef, and Vietnamese farmers, accordingly, raised their livestock in larger numbers to meet the demand. Vietnamese butchers found themselves suddenly with a surplus of cow scraps and skeleton. Because the Vietnamese tended to use cattle more for work than for dinner, street vendors, seeking to popularize it, sold beef for a song, incorporating it, thinly sliced, into a popular, traditional soup. Chinese workers who traded locally on the Red River couldn’t get enough of the stuff, and the dish finally caught on, eventually spreading all across Hanoi, and eventually the entire nation and then the world.
HOW TO EAT PHO
As a rule, since childhood, eating for me has involved just putting food into my mouth and doing my best to figure things out as I go. (Which is why I will never eat crawfish again.) But certain cuisines are meant to be eaten a certain way, and pho is one of them. Because I did not grow up eating pho, I cannot claim any expertise in the area. I know that I like it! But I also know that, historically, there is some guy at the wait station just cringing at what I’m doing to his national cuisine. So I went to Bao Vietnamese Kitchen on Perkins Road in Baton Rouge with a mission: to learn how pho is properly enjoyed. I arrived before the Sunday lunch rush, and in the quiet before the storm, I asked my waitress how to eat pho like an expert and, despite being asked by a fully grown adult how to eat soup, she was totally relaxed about the whole thing, and infinitely patient.
On her recommendation, I ordered the rare steak and brisket pho. (It was her favorite, she said, and explained that the hot broth would cook the steak.) It came out quickly and was just immediately stunning and fragrant as she set down the dish. She also brought a small bowl of fresh bean sprouts, a wedge of lime, a bottle of Sriracha and a bottle of hoisin sauce. She set the table with chopsticks and an Asian soup spoon (i.e., the white, high-grade plastic sort with a deep basin and a notch on the end to prevent the spoon from sliding into the scalding soup).
The dish itself consisted of a clear broth, thinly sliced beef, herbs and rice noodles at the bottom. She said that I could add Sriracha for heat and hoisin for sweetness and balance, and told me to give it a try. I added only a brief squirt of each — the broth was just so savory and aromatic as served that I was frightened that I might ruin it. She also said that I should squeeze lime juice into the bowl, which, again, I did. The next step was pro-level pho eating. She told me to add only a few bean sprouts at a time to the dish. Don’t just dump them in there; add just enough for the spoon so that there is consistency throughout my meal.
So with chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other, I went at it. The chopsticks were for adding the bean sprouts and eating the rice noodles and beef. (Which did cook nicely, as she said it would.) The spoon was for the broth. And so it went, until the bowl was empty. I am not proud of the voracity with which I ate it, but had you tried it, you would understand. In Vietnam, pho is a breakfast food, and I have read from those more knowledgeable that it is just perfectly fine — expected, even — to finish the bowl the way you’d drink the milk after finishing a bowl of Lucky Charms: Just bring it to your mouth and drink it down. I wasn’t psychologically prepared to do that in public, however, and the waitress didn’t bring it up, so I forewent sticking the landing.
There are other ways of enjoying pho. Some consider the Sriracha, hoisin and lime to be an apostasy — an unspeakably evil way of adulterating a perfectly good broth. Some consider the bean sprouts to be equally heretical: a South Vietnamese garnish that only sullies the One True Hanoi pho experience. I do not know which is “correct.” Regions jealously guard their ways of preparing dishes, and in that jealous, sometimes haughty pride can be found the humanity of any dish. (Except for that red-orange, New Orleans-style jambalaya. How can such a magnificent city endorse such an abomination?!)
WHAT’S NEXT FOR PHO
Pho is set for a major culinary transformation in the years ahead, not because it needs to change — how could one possibly improve it? — but because that’s just what happens when traditional cuisine meets main street. Though ramen has virtually nothing in common with pho, its subjugation to experiment is perhaps an excellent indicator of what is to come. Taco ramen. German ramen with sauerkraut and schnitzel. As pho continues its deserved domination tour across the country, it will encounter chefs who seek to fuse it with other culinary styles. In the United States, it is not hard to find pho with Texas-style smoked brisket. Pho with seafood or pork. Is that pho? Or is that faux pho?
Because pho is such a beloved Vietnamese staple and part of a strong cultural identity, it is painful to imagine what might be done to it over time. (If bean sprouts are considered by some to be heretical, what is one to make of shrimp and crawfish pho?) As with most things, simple is best. I will continue to enjoy the fare at my local restaurants, but I am not the one to say what is authentic and what is not. I’ll leave it to the chefs to sort out what is acceptable and respectful in its preparation. As for the traditional pho, I will say this: It was very hard to resist drinking it straight from that bowl.