The traffic noise gets louder by the minute as motorists and cyclists pour into Hang Giay Street. 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 chilies. It’s early morning, and morning means pho, pronounced “fuh,” the country’s beloved rice noodle soup with beef.
I had come to taste my favorite food in Hanoi, the city that created it. And this particular bowl of pho was as soothing and delicious as I had imagined it would be. The rice noodles here are almost sheer, and the broth is clear, like spring water, yet intensely aromatic. As I slurp my steaming soup, I can’t help but flash back to Saigon in the sixties. Whenever my parents could afford it, which was about once a month, they would take my siblings and me to Pho 79. It was small and run-down, with wobbly tables and squeaky stools. Yet no one ever judged it by its looks. Every time we arrived, the place was packed. When our soup would arrive, we would bend down and inhale the aroma, as it 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. All was well.
Pho originated in northern Vietnam, here in Hanoi, 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 the French affection for beef.
How this actually led to the creation of pho remains a debate. Some scholars believe the dish parallels the history of Vietnam, harboring both a Chinese and a French connection. It was the French, they theorize, who introduced the idea of using bones and lesser cuts of beef to make the broth. (After all, in a society that wasted nothing, what was one to do with all the bones carved with biftecks?) They believe the precursor to pho was created when Vietnamese cooks learned to make pot-au-feu for their French masters. The name pho might even have come from the French word feu, for fire. Others argued that while the French popularized beef, it was actually the Chinese who created pho, as evidenced by its use of noodles and ginger.
Regardless of its origin, pho remained a mainstay in northern Vietnam. The infectious enthusiasm for the simple beef and noodle soup spread in 1954, when the country was partitioned in two. The north fell under Communist control and almost a million northerners fled to the south, taking with them a dream of a new life and a love of pho, which took the south by storm. When pho migrated, however, it was embellished. Southerners demanded richer and livelier flavors and discernible textures. Pho was served with more meat, more noodles, more broth, reflecting the abundance of its new surrounding. Southerners started adding bean sprouts and herbs. Garnishes such as lime wedges, fresh chilies, chili sauce and tuong, or bean sauce, giving the dish a new character, the one it retains now.
When my family and I first arrived in the United States following the fall of Saigon, one of the foods we missed most desperately was pho. To us, a steaming bowl of pho was a taste of home. Over the years, immigrant families have readjusted and rebuilt our lives. Somehow, in the midst of all this transformation, the soup followed us through tumultuous times and journeys and has become a big part of our everyday life. Authentic recipes have been dusted off, preserved and cooked with great fervor. And so, as I’m slurping my bowl of pho in Hanoi, it’s comforting to know that wherever I happen to be, whether it’s in Vietnam or California, pho will always lurk in the background, ready to nourish and sustain me.