Pho is the perfect food for the lonely eater: a bowl of noodles is not meant to be shared. A rich broth filled with thin, slippery strands of noodles and tender beef, this is comfort food at its sweet and spicy best. But this simple soup has a tangled history. Forget the storm in a cup of tea. Pho is the story of independence in a warm, chewy bowl.
If you walk the streets of Hanoi today, you will find countless pho vendors jostling with banh mi bakeries and stalls selling salted pineapples, all enticing customers with the promise of delicious Vietnamese cuisine. Go back 150 years and many of these foods were just arriving.
The name pho talks about the tangled culinary history of the dish: most Vietnamese pronounce it “fuh”, much like the French fire, which means fire. When the French colonized Vietnam in the 1880s, they brought, with punitive taxes and venereal disease, their casserole of vegetables and beef, a pale predecessor of phorich broth. The Vietnamese adopted beef, slow simmered soup and the name pot au feu – and made them their own.
NOTapoleon III invaded Vietnam in 1857, speaking loudly of a “civilizing mission” while rejoicing at the prospect of exploiting overseas markets. It took the French another quarter of a century to take full control of the country. By the time they did, they were determined to consolidate their authority. Following the advice of an 18th century French gastronome called Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin – “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are” – the French decided that food was a way to exercise their authority .
In the mid-19th century, the Vietnamese considered beef barely edible: cows were considered to be mere draft animals. Pork was the food of choice for city dwellers across the country and the source of a strong export market. Lucien de Grammont, a colonial administrator with a big ego and an even bigger appetite, commented that the Vietnamese had “a bizarre taste for buffalo rather than beef”.
The French decided that food was a way to exercise their authority
The French went to great lengths to avoid local Vietnamese food and eat identifiable French dishes instead. In the 1860s, Chinese merchants imported more than 500 cows per month from Cambodia for sale to French army commissioners. For the French in the cities, eating beef has become a sign of allegiance.
Enterprising Vietnamese butchers quickly understood French tastes and began slaughtering cows for steaks. Butchers in Hanoi began collecting bones and leftovers for sale. Street vendors, who were already making a popular noodle and water buffalo soup called xao trau, knew an opportunity when they saw one: the beef scraps could be subtly slipped into broth instead of the water buffalo. They found that slow cooking was the best way to extract the most flavor from those leftovers.
Over time, the number of street soup vendors and customers grew to meet the needs of the growing urban population, and Vietnam’s national dish was born. Noodle stalls became so commonplace that in 1927 Jean Tardieu, a young French writer, wrote about the melody “Pho-ô” of a soup vendor from Hanoi, a sound he mistook for a enduring tradition of ancient Hanoi culture.
By the time Vietnam was split in two after the French were finally expelled in 1954, pho had found its place at the heart of Vietnamese cuisine. When a million northerners migrated south to avoid Communism, they took pho with them.
The practice of garnish pho with bean sprouts, gay ngo (peppery coriander), hooked that (Asian basil) and lime were introduced in the south. Customers have started to add tuong (soybean paste) straight into their bowls. The soup was filled with more of everything: layer after layer of meat, noodles and broth. The cooks even added a touch of Chinese rock sugar. Southerners saw themselves well-off and idiosyncratic compared to their austere northern neighbors, a contrast often expressed in their cuisine. It was pho who broke the rules.
The beef scraps could be subtly slipped into a broth instead of the water buffalo
Pho reached the height of its power as a political emblem during the Vietnam War, when it literally became an instrument of covert operations. From 1965, a Viet Cong spy cell operated from Saigon Pho Café Binh (Peace Noodles). The seven-table joint, with escape routes through the roof and sewers, was a Communist nerve center and the basis of the city’s role in the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Slurping noodles turned out to be an effective blanket: weapons and explosives were hidden under potted plants and straw mats. More than 100 Viet Cong fighters walked through the cafe, often hiding silently in the attic without moving, supported by steaming bowls of noodle soup. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the takeover of the reunified country by the Communist Party, the new government awarded awards to the owners of the restaurant.
Today pho always draws a line across Vietnam as precise as any on a map: Southerners tend to eat decadent sweet and spicy noodles, and Northerners take them crisp and pure. The aspiring cooks are stirring the pot more and more. You can find pho wherever you find Vietnamese communities: there are nearly 2000 pho restaurants in North America, and many supermarkets now sell instant pho kits and pho bowls.
Noodle slurping was effective cover for a Viet Cong spy cell
The noodle dish continues to evolve, taking many forms across the world, including crayfish pho, beef vacuum pho and pho fried rice. These intercultural banquets speak of intertwined peoples, customs and habits. Still, the noodle bowl remains political. In 2016, an American chef was blasted for a play called “This is how you should eat Pho“: He has been accused of both cultural appropriation and being downright patronizing. As the dish’s ancestors attest, there’s only one right way to enjoy a steaming bowl of pho – with delight.■
Emma Irving is a freelance writer based in London
ILLUSTRATIONS: MARK SMITH