Pho is no doubt soup for the soul and the national dish of Vietnam. This Vietnamese noodle broth has captured the hearts of locals as well as attained international fame worldwide. It is fragrant and hearty, and despite its simple appearance, it boasts of a flavour so complex that only long hours of simmering over low heat could create such depth in the broth.
A French Influence
The origin of pho is not well documented although it has been generally agreed that pho was created in northern Vietnam, around the Hanoi region, during the late 19th century. That was the time when the French colonised the country and introduced their cuisine to the locals. Of the many popular French dishes, pot au feu, which is French beef stew, might have inspired the Vietnamese to create their own version, leading to the birth of “pho”. “Pho” also sounds like “feu”, meaning “fire”, in French.
Taste of the North
Did you know that there are actually two versions of pho in Vietnam? The pho in northern Vietnam is known as “Pho bac”. It has a clear broth that is lighter and more delicate in taste. Rice noodles and thin slices of beef are cooked quickly in the broth then served together with the soup. You could only find scallion, cilantro and chilli sauce as garnishes, although interestingly, pho bac is eaten with fried dough fritters.
Reinvented in the South
When Vietnam was divided into two parts in 1954, many refugees fled from the north, which fell under the Communist rule. They escaped to the affluent south, bringing with them this humble noodle soup dish. Here the classic pho was reinvented. People from the south added more spices to the broth, which is now sweeter. They also used different cuts of beef, like ribeye, fatty flank, lean flank, and brisket as well as offals such as tripe. Tendons also became popular for its slippery tenderness, and beef meatballs offer another dimension of chewy, bouncy flavour.
Nowadays some people would replace beef with chicken. Instead of using beef bones to make the broth, chicken carcasses and meat are used along with organs such as gizzards and undeveloped eggs that are found inside the chicken. All these create extra flavour and depth to the pho broth, not to mention the much needed extra nutrition too.
In addition to the rice noodles, meat and broth, aromatic herbs like Thai basil and raw crunchy bean sprouts are typically added for texture, along with a squeeze of lime juice for freshness. Depending on your preference, you could add sliced raw onions, fresh red chilli, hoisin sauce, and even Sriracha to amp up the flavour of your pho.
During the 1950s, this rich version of pho soon became known as “Pho nam”, which eventually became the more common variant of pho that we all know of today.
An international icon
When the Vietnam war broke out, many Vietnamese migrated overseas and brought Pho to other countries. Till today, you can still find authentic restaurants that specialize in pho in Paris, as well as Australia, the United States, and Canada.
Pho has become a popular street food, the go-to comfort food as well as a healthy dish that is light yet packed full with deliciousness. Its versatility means that the recipe can be adapted to suit one’s dietary requirement or palate. Nowadays, you can find seafood pho, vegetarian pho that only contains tofu and greens, as well as fusion-style pho that strays from the traditional recipe.
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