Every country has a special dish that they can be really proud, of something that reflects their cultural roots, for Japan it’s Sushi, USA has burgers or Chicken Waffles, Australia has Lamingtons, Meat Pies and for Vietnam that dish is Pho.
What’s great about good food is that it can be universally satisfying regardless of race or where you are in the world. Nowadays, you can find almost any kind of “de facto” national food in metropolitans. Whether you are craving for an authentic ramen, or some Korean barbeque, or the best pasta in town, you can usually find a restaurant or a mom-and-pop shop that serve such cravings within the vicinity.
Pho is a dish that’s making waves in the nation right now. If you haven’t heard about the fascination yet, Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) is a mouth-watering comfort food that originated from Vietnam. Considered as Vietnam’s national dish, Pho is a noodle soup consisting of rice noodles, broth, meat, vegetable and various spices or herbs.
Pho represents Vietnam’s rich history. Most culinary experts in Vietnam believe that the noodle soup was born over a hundred year ago in Northern Vietnam. However, the iconic dish only graced the west after the Fall of Saigon (1975). Today, Pho is already a global phenomenon. Anyone that indulges in this hearty food will surely fall in love with it.
So far, what we know about Pho is that it is a Vietnamese dish, it is a noodle soup, Viet migrants introduced the dish to the US in 1975, and it has become so popular right now. That’s basically it. However, the origins of the favourite dish is much more stretched than its noodle strand.
There are several theories involving the true origin of Pho. One theory says the Vietnamese noodle soup was based on a similar dish that originated from France! It is believed that Pho was influenced from a French dish called “pot au feu” – a stew of beef made with vegetables. Another argument states that Pho was a mere corruption of a certain Chinese buffalo meat cuisine.
But regardless of whether it originated with the French or Chinese, Pho now is an authentic Vietnamese food and, we can’t deny the fact that it is one of the most delicious noodle soups in existence.
The world came to discover the original Vietnamese Pho in 1975 when several migrants moved to the United States and started to introduce the delicious cuisine to different heritages and races. With Pho’s global reception, the famous noodle dish had already undergone quite a few evolutions.
There are now several variations of the noodle soup depending on where it is made. Basically, no two bowls of Pho prepared from different kitchens will taste exactly the same. Despite being the soul cuisine of Vietnam, Pho is actually a dish that has several variations – both locally and internationally. Two of the most popular variations of Pho are Pho Bac and Pho Nam.
Northern Pho vs the Southern Pho
Originating from Hanoi in Northern Vietnam, Pho Bac is said to be the true version of the Pho dish. Hanoi was the pillar of political power during the French colonial era With the influence of the French people on slaughtering cows for food, the Pho Bac was born. Back then Vietnamese people only considered cows as precious working animals and not as a source of food.
After Vietnam was conquered by France in the late 1880s, the French established their colony naming it the French Indochina and they made Hanoi the city capital of the country.
During the French occupation, the locals were introduced to the pot au feu dish that made use of cow red meat as an ingredient. At that time, the northern regions weren’t as wealthy as Southern Vietnam. Thus, the Northern Vietnamese learned to make food from unusual ingredients including experimenting with cow meat in soups. It’s said that when the French would cooked their favourite pot au feu, the conquerors would dispose of the beef bones which the locals eventually used to create what is known as the Pho Bac.
To cook Pho Bac, northern Vietnamese only made use of two main ingredients: rare beef and rice noodles. Cooked in hot broth, Pho Bac was never topped with any herbs, garnishes, or spices which are common ingredients in any bowl of Pho these days.
Even today, Pho made in northern Vietnam still resembles the original recipe – plain beef and rice noodles, nothing more, nothing less. Such lavish toppings/preparation is considered distasteful for most northern Vietnamese.
The Second World War saw the Japanese invading several key cities in the world – and that included Hanoi, Vietnam. It was during the Japanese rule when Vietnam would be split into North and South (1954) wherein the former would become the Communist haven and the latter the democratic region centred on Saigon.
Fearing for their lives, countless northern Vietnamese fled to the Southern region. Taking with them their hope for a better tomorrow, they also took with them their pride dish. Refugees from the north shared their Pho recipes with their countrymen in the south.
At the time, South Vietnam had an abundance of food resources. From herbs, spices, to poultry among others, the locals began experimenting with other ingredients to make Pho. From the original beef ingredient, southern Vietnamese made use of chicken in place of beef. Thus, they came up with a new variant of Pho which is known as the Pho Nam.
The main difference between the Pho Bac and the Pho Nam is that the latter makes use of more spices and the meat ingredient can either be beef or chicken – unlike the Pho Bac which exclusively use beef meat.
When the Americans came into the picture, a war was inevitable. The fall of Saigon officially marked the end of the Vietnam War.
Looking to start anew, thousands of Vietnamese people fled their beloved country and moved to various places across the globe. Many of these refugees entered the United States, others went to neighbouring Asian countries, and some even reached Oceania.
As the Vietnamese people fled their home, they also brought with them their soul dish; Pho. Being as innovative as they are, they used any ingredients available in the places they settled in to make Pho – thus, creating more variants of the original Pho recipes.
Over the course of time, Pho evolved to more variations; from different ingredients, to cooking techniques, and even on how Pho should be eaten. The world ultimately embraced Pho and people made different versions of it.
With the rich history of how Pho was born, the Vietnamese people went through a lot just to offer the world a delicious cuisine that can satisfy any hunger and appetite. Pho is the national dish of Vietnam because it emulates the Vietnamese people themselves; versatile, adaptable, enduring and packed full of culture. Not to mention, its distinct taste and flavours, Pho captivates the heart (and tummy) knows it’s history.