| Pho (pronounce fuh)-from the French pot au feu-is the Vietnamese traditional beef noodle soup, which originated
in Hanoi in the 1920-30's. The Vietnamese cooks who worked for the French thought it was a good idea to use the pot au feu for their families. It could be done simply, cheaply, and in an appetizing way. While the French soup was laden with vegetables
and beef, the cooks modified it by using discarded beef bones, which still gave it a rich meaty smell and texture without the high cost of
beef. In the cool northern climate, pho caught on like wildfire and became the regular household soup for the Vietnamese.
Some people thought pho had a Chinese origin, although it seems unlikely because pho had never been used before by the
Chinese until very recently. Chinese soups like mi and hu tieu were based on the broth of pig, not beef
The northerners brought the pho with them when they migrated South in 1954. However, consuming hot beef noodle soup in a hot
southern environment was not exactly appealing, therefore pho lagged behind the other southern noodle soups like mi and hu tieu. It was only in the late 1960-70's that the modified southern pho-with the addition of bulky portions of
beef and bean sprouts, cilantro, coriander leaves-took an upward swing.
While pho was completely unknown abroad before the end of the 1970's, its worldwide spread parallels the Vietnamese diaspora.
Wherever Vietnamese would settle, they would open pho stalls-these restaurants that served only pho. Pho thus made
its way to the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Australia, England, Japan and other western countries and metamorphosed into something
completely different from the native version. The noodle and beef portions took on gargantuan sizes. Different types of meat were also
used (steak, fatty flank, lean flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, chicken, meatballs, and now even seafood). A vegetarian pho could also
be ordered . The variety of fresh vegetables like cilantro, basil leaves, bean sprouts, onions, coriander leaves, and lemon
adds a new dimension to the pho. One could easily see how foreigners who visited a pho stall for the first time could be awestruck
when a large bowl of pho and an even larger plate of herbs and vegetables were placed in front of them.
Not to be outdone, the original northern pho had also migrated to other communist countries following the footpath of Vietnamese
communist workers. Pho therefore could be seen in Budapest, Prague, Moscow, East Berlin and other eastern block countries.
In the late 1990's, pho returned to Saigon by way of a Viet Kieu who opened a Pho 2000-opened in 2000-restaurant to serve foreigners mostly
Viet Kieu. The place was also cleaner than the local restaurants. President Clinton when he visited Saigon that year dropped by Pho 2000 and
ordered a bowl of pho. He liked it so much, he ordered a second one. He then had a picture taken with the restaurant owner. Today, a large
picture of Mr. Clinton and the owner presided over the dining place and the chair on which Mr. Clinton sat to savor pho had been encased in
glass and displayed on the wall. Another Viet Kieu in 2003 started Pho 24-open 24 hours a day-that began in Saigon and had expanded to Hanoi,
Japan, Indonesia and other countries. Pho 24 became the first international restaurant chain dealing with Vietnamese food.
This was how the pho formula, after circling the globe and being transformed through migrations and cultures and improved by various palates,
returned to the city of its birth to the bewilderment of the natives. Sadly, it has become too expensive ($US4; it could cost up to $US9 in
other countries) for most Hanoians. Another reason why natives avoided these chains was the absence of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in the
foreign based pho, a substance that is still favored in Asia.
There are as many variants of pho as there are Vietnamese and each variant is different from the other. First, there are the Hanoi, Hue, or
Saigon brands of pho. It has been said that the Hanoi pho is much simpler, less elaborate, and has less meat than the southern one. Mint
leaves, bean sprout, and a wide variety of herbs as well as wide-size noodles have been added in its journey to the South. Once it had crossed
the Atlantic Ocean, the pho was notable by its size and meat portions. The pho in Paris is definitely different than the one in Westminster's
Little Saigon, California. The pho in the former eastern block communist counties is closer to the Hanoi pho than its western European or
Imitation is a form of flattery. Buoyed by the success of the pho, Chinese and Japanese cooks jumped into the fray and also offered pho as
part of their menu. Even Emeril Lagasse, the famous New Orleans cook, at one time prepared pho for his viewers on one of his TV shows. But
this is not the real pho for the real broth would take a long time to prepare-an endless simmering of beef bones. I once went to San
Francisco's Chinatown and saw pho advertised in Vietnamese in a Chinese restaurant. The cooks and waitresses were all Chinese and although
the pho served there looked like the original pho, its taste was not.
Last but not least, there is mom or your other half's pho. The latter is unique and cannot be compared to the store pho. Since she had put a
lot of patience and love into the preparation of the broth, it transcends all the rest. I always remember this college student's remark: "I
can only eat mom's pho. It has the right taste, the right amount of meat and the right ingredient." Of course, she has trained his taste
buds for the last two decades.
History does not progress in straight line but through convoluted detours. When the Vietnamese landed in the U.S. in 1975, the hardest thing
to find was a bowl of pho. It was like looking for caviar in Vietnam. There was no pho noodle, no ingredients, no mint, basil leaves, hoisin
sauce, and especially beef bones. There was nothing to make a good bowl of pho while people were salivating at the imaginary smell of the
soup. They slowly figured out how to make the noodle, where to find the vegetables, fresh herbs and where to look for beef bones. Et voila the pho-born in Hanoi-was re-born in a foreign land. At that time, the pho in its infancy did in no way taste like the present pho. The flavor
was not there, the noodle was too thick or thin, and the meat was not right. But it was better than nothing. Three decades later, anyone could
go to an oriental store, get pho noodle-either the dry or fresh kind-as well as the soup in its condensed form in a jar, bring them home and
make a decent bowl of pho.
Commercial pho has also progressed stepwise. In the 1980's, pho was only served in restaurants as one of the menu selections. Restaurant
owners did not know how pho soup would be received by the Americans. The latter certainly did not want to consume soup throughout the day
like the Vietnamese. Slowly, pho had picked up steam and is presently served in ubiquitous pho stalls with names like pho Saigon, pho 75, pho 99 and so on.
Pho seems to appeal to a large clientele in part due to its low fat content, good portion of meat, and fast preparation. Just try to order a
bowl of pho and barely five minutes had passed before a steamy hot bowl of soup made its way to your place. If it was used to cater to
Vietnamese palates, it has now crossed racial divides. Americans came in good numbers to taste it. They frequently ate the noodles and the
meat and left behind the soup. Their Vietnamese friends would remind them that it was the soup that made the pho, not the meat or the noodle.
They then started to savor the soup and to like it. Pho also appealed to Koreans and Chinese, since the latter also used other types of soup
that are very close to pho. In Virginia, on sees a lot of Spanish people who came with their families to savor the pho. It is refreshing to
see groups of four, six, or eight Spanish people come to a pho restaurant to enjoy it.
Pho, the traditional Vietnamese soup, in 2007 has made its way into the Webster dictionary and has become a unifier of palates.
Nghia M. Vo