Oh my beloved,
Life without you is like
Phở without its broth…
The traffic noise gets louder by the minute when motorists and cyclists rush into Hàng Giấy Street. On the sidewalk, shoppers are browsing through the neighbourhood fruit stands, looking for the best picks. But the people sitting next to me at this low table are oblivious to all the commotion. Instead, they’re anxiously wiping their chopsticks, fiddling with their little dishes of lime and chopped chillies. It’s morning in Hà Nội, and morning means Phở, the country’s beloved rice noodles soup with beef.
From the year 1995, up until a few years ago, the thought of coming to Hà Nội seemed so remote. How could I ever visit a place that brought tragic memories of the war all over the country and a city where my father’s enemies once ruled?
But after only one bite of my noodle, I immediately knew that I had come to taste my favourite food in the city that created it. This particular bowl of Phở was as soothing and delicious as I had imagined it would be. Unlike the darker broth and chewier noodle served in other parts of Việt Nam and overseas, the rice noodles here are almost sheer, and the broth is clear, like spring water, yet has the intensely aromatic of beef marrow bones.
The way I prefer to enjoy phở breakfast once seated: Phở with the rare and cooked beef toppings and cà phê sữa đá – a delicious coffee served with condensed milk and ice cubes. While waiting, I grabbed the chopsticks and spoon from an aluminium container and dust them off. Moments later, my noodle soup arrived. I would bend down and inhale the aroma to verify its authenticity. Invariably, the broth smelled utterly beefy, laced with just-roasted spices. The rice noodles looked velvety and fresh, the edges of the rare beef curled up expectantly in the hot broth and all was well.
Then, my arms and hands would reach across the table, reaching for the lime, basil, saw-coriander and fresh chillies to garnish my bowl.
Even though our family first discovered Phở in South Việt Nam, the dish actually originated in Hà Nội, following the French occupation in the latter part of the 1800s. The Vietnamese, who valued cows and buffaloes as indispensable beasts of burden, didn’t eat red meat, preferring instead pork, chicken and seafood. When the French arrived, however, many Vietnamese, especially those belonging to the upper classes, began to share with the French the affection for beef. Dishes made with boeuf began to start appearing at the markets and in restaurants, and in time, red meat became part of the Vietnamese diet.
How this actually led to the creation of Phở remains a debate. Some scholars believe the dish parallels the history of Việt Nam, harbouring both a Chinese and a French connection. It was French, they theorize, who introduced the idea of using bones and lesser cuts of beef to produce the broth. (After all, in a society that wasted nothing, what was one to do with all the bones carved from biftecks?) In fact, they believe the dish was first created when Vietnamese cooks learned to make pot-au-feu for their French masters. The name Phở-pronounced fuh-might have even come from the French word “feu” meaning fire.
Others argue that while the French popularized beef, it was actually the Chinese who created Phở, as evidenced by its use of noodles and ginger. According to Hữu Ngọc, a Hà Nội-based scholar who wrote extensively about the local culture and cuisine for more than five decades, historical records suggest that the soup is related to an ancient dish called cháo phở and lục phở, which translates into soup with phở and beef with phở. The word phở, he says, was probably a mispronunciation of phan, as in the Chinese phrase ngưu nhục phấn, which means rice paste soup with beef.
Regardless of the origin, the Vietnamese were quick to interject their own ideas. Using ingredients inspired by their foreign rulers, they customized Phở by adding nước mắm (fish sauce), the defining ingredient.
In the 1930s, in part spurred by nationalistic sentiments, some Hà Nội scholars wrote passionately about Phở, crediting it not only as food that provided the necessary nutrients in one convenient bowl but food that symbolically freed the people who created and ate it. At last, the Vietnamese were free to express themselves through Phở.
The infectious enthusiasm for the dish spreads south in 1954 when the country was partitioned in two. The north fell under Communist control and almost a million northerners fled, taking with them a dream of a new life in the democratic south and love for Phở.
Phở took the south by storm. When Phở was introduced to the south, it was embellished. Reflecting the abundance of its new surroundings, it was served with more meat, more noodles, more broth. Southerners demanded richer and livelier flavours and discernible textures. They started adding bean sprouts and herbs, such as saw-coriander and sweet basil. But it didn’t stop there. Garnishes such as lime wedges, fresh chillies, chilli sauce and tương, or bean sauce, were added, giving the dish a new character. As in the north, it quickly became a favourite, but only after it had been modified to reflect southern taste and mentality.