Monday, 23 June 2008

Pho - Is it just a Noodle Soup ?

Pho, is with out doubt the national dish of Vietnam. It is a bowl of white noodles served in a clear beef stock. In Hanoi, it seemed to have taken on obsessional status. They seem to have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I am sure there are people who eat it 3 times a day, everyday. It comes in many different variants, the most popular is Pho Bo, or Beef Pho. thin cuts of beef, like brisket, flank or steak. Although Pho Ga, Chicken Pho is pretty good also. You can make it with anything really, intestines and other offal are popular. 

The stock is made in the usual way of simmering beef bones, with roasted veg and spices for several hours till you have a stock to die for. This is really the backbone of a good Pho. Without a good stock it would be just a beef noodle soup, as you get in some Chinese restaurants. The noodles people use are always fresh white ones. No self respecting Pho seller would use anything else. 

The noodles are put in the bowl first, then the stock is added, and finally before it is served a garnish is added. This seems to differ from shop to shop, maker to maker. This is what sets some apart from others. Mostly spring onions, coriander leaves, basil, bean sprouts are used. We had one today off a lady who sprinkled crushed peanuts on top. Yummy. Depending on the shop you will also get served a dish of other herbs to add at your will, like mint, and a few I have never seen before. You always get a bowl of lime wedges, chilli sauce, chilli slices and fish sauce to add as well. I am in favour of a little more heat to my Pho, but only after I have tasted a bit already. I like to see how good their stock is before I pep it up a bit. Phở is pronounced with a falling-rising tone in Vietnamese, as if asking a question in English. It is therefore pronounced as FUH? But I try my best to say it properly, I think I am generally understood though. Especially when asking for Pho in a Pho shop. Kinda obvious what I want. 

Pho originated in Northern Vietnam, and only spread to the rest of Vietnam in the mid 1950's, after the division of the country. The Northerners who did not want to be under communist rule headed South and took Pho with them. Noone is sure how it came about, maybe from the French and their stock making skills, or it was created out of the scraps that the people could afford. Similar to all good peasant dishes. Their are also those who say it was came from China, but the Vietnamese, I am sure would kill anyone who said it was that. They still hate the Chinese. Not surprising after 1,000 years of rule. 

Some of the best Pho I have had here in Vietnam, has actually came from a chain. Pho 24. It's a clean, trendy place, but lacks atmosphere of your smaller family run business. Other good ones have been at Pho 2000 in Saigon. In Hanoi, the best Pho is where the crowds are, and these places are small family run. They do not look much, you sit on small plastic chairs at small tables. You have to wipe the chopstix and spoon before using them. So if I see a shop with a lot of local people, then 99 times out of a 100 it has to be good Pho. and until now, this has never failed me. 

Pho connesueurs, will say that the best Pho is from the north, and the southern style from Saigon, is somewhat sweeter. Pho Hue style contains bits of offal, like steamed blood. Yum, yum.  This what Lina was eating in Saigon, when that chilli tried to kill me, but as it was Pho, I forgave it. 

To say wether Ramen noodles are better than Pho is a question I am avoiding. Lets just say I am addicted to both, and lets leave it at that shall we. 

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