The quintessence of Vietnamese cuisine

Associated with wet rice civilisation and having existed for hundreds of years, Vietnamese pho has been brought all over five continents and is favoured by friends across the world. Although pho today has many variations, the secret to have a bowl of “heirloom” pho is still an interesting and meaningful story. “The path of pho” is also the path to preserve and promote the quintessential values of Vietnamese culinary culture.

Pho is an indispensable dish in the culinary culture of Hanoi people.

Pho is an indispensable dish in the culinary culture of Hanoi people.

Where does pho originate?

If we take a breakfast dish with water to symbolise the three cities representing the north, central and south, then Hanoi has Pho, Hue has Bun bo gio heo (Beef and pork knuckle noodle soup) and Ho Chi Minh City has Hu tieu (a type of rice noodle with seasoned pork and shrimp)
Professor Tran Quoc Vuong

There are many different theories about the origin of pho, but it is now impossible to clearly determine the origin of this dish. According to writer and researcher Nguyen Ngoc Tien, who has spent a lot of time learning about Hanoi pho, there are four theories about the origin of pho. 

Writer Nguyen Ngoc Tien has researched many sources of information about pho, such as information at libraries and the National Archives Centre, including the family history book of the Nguyen Dinh family on Hanoi’s Hang Ngang Street, who were originally from Thanh Tri but began to live in Thang Long from the end of the 17th century. The history book talks about the origin of pho originating from buffalo meat noodle, which is made from water simmered with buffalo bones mixed with vermicelli and buffalo meat in addition to onion and laksa leaves. This dish was mainly sold at ferry terminals and Red River beaches, serving the porters there. Then sellers replaced the vermicelli with shredded rice rolls and then replaced buffalo meat with beef because it was cheaper than buffalo meat as a large number of cows were raised by the French in Ba Vi. Later, Thanh Tri rice rolls were thickly coated, almost like today’s pho noodles.

Foreign tourists enjoy pho.

Foreign tourists enjoy pho.

A second theory attributes the origin of pho to the cooking method of the French dish pot-au-feu, whereby “feu” means “fire”. The dish came from the De Lanessan Hospital, now the 108 Military Central Hospital, where wounded French soldiers were served the dish by the hospital cooks to help with their recovery. This theory does not sound right because the dish is made from simmered cow bones but also includes vegetables such as carrots and turnips. 

A third theory states that pho originated in Van Cu Village in Nam Dinh in the late 19th century, when Nam Dinh became the first city with textile factories in Vietnam. Originally Van Cu villagers sliced undried rice wafers into small pieces and cooked them with simmered bone broth and beef, and then sold it to textile workers. However, this theory is unable to explain why the dish is called pho.

A fourth theory suggests that pho originates from a dish called “niu rou fen” made by Cantonese people in Hanoi. “Niu rou fen” is noodles served with beef and sauce made from meat, but the cooking method is different and contains many ingredients in Chinese traditional medicine. Street vendors usually advertised by saying “phan o”, which was later shifted to “pho”.

Writer and researcher Nguyen Ngoc Tien said pho first appeared around the late 19th century and it is difficult the determine the exact year. Some documents suggest the presence of pho in the early 20th century, such as Henri Oger’s 1908-1909 book Technique du peuple Annamite or Mechanics and Crafts of the People of Annam), which depicts a pho street vendor.

A dictionary by the École Française d'Extrême-Orient, compiled in the 1920s and published in 1933, provides a clear definition of pho, including pho with well-done and rare beef.

In 1937, the well-known poet Tu Mo wrote a poem praising pho, in which he mentioned the ingredients of pho, including banh cuon (rice sheets), beef, and fatty broth. Banh cuon got a special mention as the first ingredient of banh pho (rice noodles).

The first pho restaurant was opened at Cau Go Street, owned by Chinese people, but it is difficult to prove whether it was a pho restaurant or selling Vietnamese-style pho. 

Writer and researcher Nguyen Ngoc Tien said that from a dish for workers at the river wharf, pho has become a sophisticated dish for Thang Long-Hanoi people due to the needs of the middle class, with "refinement" and sophistication.

The “versions” of pho

Initially, there was only one type of pho, beef pho with cooked beef brisket or poached beef. According to writer Nguyen Ngoc Tien, during the resistance war against the French from 1947-1954, Hanoians evacuated and fought, bringing with them their craft of making pho. In areas of resistance and temporary resettlement, due to poor and difficult conditions, bones for broth cannot be simmered as carefully and meticulously as before. In addition, beef cattle must be prioritised for traction, so beef wasn’t available, so chicken pho was born as an alternative. There are many versions of chicken pho, pho with whole uncut chicken, skinless chicken, boneless chicken pieces, chicken thighs, or chicken wing tips.

As society develops, the needs and tastes of diners also change and expand, with more types of pho. pho is now divided into two categories, pho with broth and pho without broth. pho with broth includes beef pho, chicken pho, and pho with bordelaise sauce. pho without broth includes stir-fried pho, fried pho, deep-fried pho, and pho rolls. pho without broth has beef and onions like pho with broth, except the pho rolls do not have raw onions. Stir-fried pho has a thick sauce from stir-fried beef, while pho rolls use pho to roll, along with meat and vegetables and dipped in sweet and sour fish sauce.

Pho has also changed to suit the culinary culture of each locality and region. For example, when going to the mountains, pho changes to suit the spices here, typically Lang Son sour pho and Cao Bang duck pho. 

Sour pho includes rice noodles served with a variety of fillings such as char siu, pork liver, shredded chicken, sweet potatoes, fried onions, roasted peanuts... mixed with sweet and sour sauce. Besides Lang Son, sour pho is also available in many other localities, and is also modified with local spices and ingredients. For example, sour pho in Bac Ha is filled with black pork, fried tofu, herbs, and peanuts..., while in Lang Son there are many more types, including pork liver, char siu, roasted duck, and pig stomach. 

Cao Bang duck pho includes rice noodles with bone broth mixed with a little roasted duck water, served with roasted duck meat, and chilli bamboo shoots, - a speciality of the northern mountains. Sour pho and duck pho are two dishes that only use pho ingredients, while the cooking method and ingredients have completely changed to suit the local culinary culture and ingredients. 

In many places, pho is made from local rice and is suitable for each region's taste. For example, in Bac Ha, there is pho hong, made from brown rice. Pho hong is used in both normal beef pho and sour pho. In particular, this type of local brown rice is difficult to eat and not delicious when cooked, but it is very suitable for making pho noodles.

As for the original pho, through the process of following the artisans to the south, there were many changes to suit each region’s taste. A bowl of southern pho turns to the sweetness of sugar, served with more vegetables such as bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, and thinly sliced onions, along with beef balls, hoisin sauce, and red sauce (sweet chili sauce). Many Vietnamese pho restaurants opened abroad also have southern pho-style tastes.

Along with these adjustments, creations on pho have been promoted, with rice noodles being replaced with other ingredients such as corn, green banana flour, lotus seed flour, and artichoke powder. 

In Hanoi, the young owner of La Chapelle restaurant on Au Trieu Street, Hoan Kiem District, created pho using Chinese herbology, which combines Chinese medicine, simmered lotus seeds, wormwood leaves, and chicken pho. 

Across the country, the recipe of pho has been innovated in unexpected ways, creating a culinary quintessence to the dish.

Pho is now divided into two categories, pho with broth and pho without broth. pho with broth includes beef pho, chicken pho, and pho with bordelaise sauce. pho without broth includes stir-fried pho, fried pho, deep-fried pho, and pho rolls.

The path of pho

Following in the footsteps of Hanoians and Vietnamese expatriates, pho has been promoted around the world and established a brand for Vietnamese cuisine. Wherever there are Vietnamese people, there is pho. pho restaurants have been opened across large and small cities around the world. Although the locations have different food conditions, the restaurants retain the basic characteristics of Vietnamese pho. 

Vietnamese pho restaurants abroad serve diners with different tastes, with Hanoi-style pho and southerners-style pho. In France, most pho restaurants are located in District 13 of Paris. Prominent among them are Pho Co (Old Quarter) restaurant, which serves authentic Hanoi-style pho, as well as Ba Mien and Com restaurants, which serve southern-style taste. pho has also been present in many states in the US. In the city of Baton Rouge in Louisiana, there is a small Vietnamese pho restaurant that has been in operation for a long time. According to the owner, it often uses dried rice noodles to make pho, and the beef is usually fresh beef bought at the Mexican market in the early morning to taste similar to Vietnamese beef, which is tender and aromatic. In the cold season, the restaurant has to import herbs and onions from states with warmer climates because Vietnamese tropical herbs and spices often cannot stand the cold weather there. 

Thang Long Restaurant, owned by Co Nhu Thanh, is a favourite address in Imizu, Toyama, Japan, which attracts Japanese people who love Vietnamese pho as well as Overseas Vietnamese people who miss the taste of their homeland.

In Sapa Market (in the Czech Republic), there is a famous pho restaurant that has attracted not only local diners but also those from surrounding countries. This is also the pho restaurant with a cooking method quite close to the original pho in Vietnam, as described by writer Nguyen Ngoc Tien.

“A bowl of beef pho is sure to cure what ails you”. (Photo: CNN)

“A bowl of beef pho is sure to cure what ails you”. (Photo: CNN)

Pho officially became a separate noun in the world's prestigious English dictionary and also contributed to shaping Vietnamese cuisine on the world culinary map.

Since 2011, along with spring rolls, Vietnamese pho has been ranked by CNN as one of the 50 most delicious dishes in the world. On August 23, 2022, Vietnamese sandwiches, pho, and coffee entered the top 50 best street foods in Asia, voted by CNN.

Earlier in September 2007, pho was officially recorded in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, published on September 20 in the UK and US. pho officially became a separate noun in the world's prestigious English dictionary and also contributed to shaping Vietnamese cuisine on the world culinary map.

In the country, pho is still the top choice of many people for meals during the day if they miss a meal or crave something hot and watery. There are more pho restaurants than other types. Many restaurants in Hanoi are crowded with secret recipes, and each restaurant has its own number of diners with different tastes. In Nam Dinh, some villages specialise in making pho, such as Van Cu and Giao Cu, with many locals keeping the craft from generation to generation and bringing pho everywhere, both in the country and abroad. 

According to information from the Hanoi Department of Culture and Sports, the city is preparing a dossier to include pho in the list of national intangible cultural heritage. At the same time, Hanoi is also receiving the suggestion of coordinating with Nam Dinh and some provinces in co-chairing the implementation of a project to build a Pho culinary profile and seek UNESCO’s recognition of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

Published: March 14, 2024
Production Manager: Van Minh
Content: Tuyet Loan
Design: Duong Duong
Photos: Nam Nguyen, Khieu Minh