Pho is the perfect food for the lone eater: a bowl of noodles is not meant to be shared. A rich broth packed with slim, slithery noodle strands and tender beef, this is comfort food at its sweet and spicy best. But this simple soup has a tangled history. Forget the storm in a teacup. Pho is the story of independence in a warm, soupy bowl.
If you wander the streets of Hanoi today, you’ll find countless pho vendors jostling with banh mi bakeries and stalls selling salted pineapple, all luring customers with the promise of delicious Vietnamese cuisine. Go back 150 years and many of these foods had only just arrived.
The name pho speaks to the dish’s entwined culinary history: most Vietnamese pronounce it “fuh”, rather like the French feu, meaning fire. When the French colonised Vietnam in the 1880s, they brought, along with punitive taxes and venereal disease, their casserole of vegetables and beef, a pale predecessor of pho’s rich broth. The Vietnamese adopted the beef, the slow-simmered soup and the name pot-au-feu – and made them their own.
Napoleon III invaded Vietnam in 1857, talking loudly of a “civilising mission” while delighting in the prospect of exploiting overseas markets. It took the French another quarter-century to win full control of the country. By the time they’d done so they were determined to cement their authority. Following the advice of an 18th-century French gastronome called Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin – “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are” – the French decided food was one way to exert authority.
In the mid-19th century, the Vietnamese considered beef barely edible: cows were seen as mere draft animals. Pork was the food of choice for urbanites across the country and the source of a sturdy export market. Lucien de Grammont, a colonial administrator with a large ego and even larger appetite, commented that the Vietnamese had a “bizarre taste for buffalo over beef”.
The French decided food was one way to exert authority
The French went to great efforts to avoid local Vietnamese food and eat identifiably French fare instead. By the 1860s Chinese dealers were importing more than 500 cows a month from Cambodia to sell to French army commissaries. For French people in the cities, eating beef became a badge of allegiance.
Enterprising Vietnamese butchers were quick to catch on to French tastes and began slaughtering cows for steaks. Butchers in Hanoi started salvaging the leftover bones and scraps to sell. Street vendors, who were already making a popular noodle and water-buffalo soup called xao trau, knew an opportunity when they saw one: beef offcuts could be subtly slipped into broth in place of water buffalo. They discovered that slow cooking was the best way to extract the most flavour from these leftovers.
Over time the number of street soup vendors and customers swelled to meet the needs of the growing urban population, and Vietnam’s national dish was born. Noodle stalls became so commonplace that in 1927 Jean Tardieu, a young French writer, wrote about hearing the “Pho-ô” tune of a Hanoi soup vendor, a sound he mistakenly took to be an enduring tradition of Hanoi’s ancient culture.
By the time Vietnam was split in two after the French were finally kicked out in 1954, pho had found its way to the heart of Vietnamese cuisine. When a million northerners migrated southward to avoid communism, they took pho with them.
The practice of garnishing pho with bean sprouts, ngo gai (peppery coriander), hung que (Asian basil) and lime was introduced in the south. Diners started adding tuong (soybean paste) directly to their bowls. The soup was packed with more of everything: layer upon layer of meat, noodles and broth. Cooks even added a touch of Chinese rock sugar. Southerners considered themselves affluent and idiosyncratic compared with their austere northern neighbours, a contrast often expressed in their cooking. This was pho that broke the rules.
Beef offcuts could be subtly slipped into broth in place of water buffalo
Pho reached the height of its power as a political emblem during the Vietnam war, when it literally became instrumental in covert operations. From 1965 onwards a Viet Cong spy cell operated out of Saigon’s Pho Binh (Peace Noodles) café. The seven-table joint, complete with escape routes through the roof and sewers, was a communist nerve centre and the base for the city’s part in the 1968 Tet offensive.
Noodle slurping, it turned out, was an effective cover: arms and explosives were hidden beneath potted plants and straw mats. Over 100 Viet Cong fighters passed through the café, often hiding silently in the attic without moving, sustained by steaming bowls of noodle soup. After Saigon fell in 1975 and the Communist Party took control of the reunified country, the new government bestowed awards on the restaurant’s proprietors.
Today pho still draws a line through Vietnam as definite as any on a map: southerners tend to eat sweet, spicy decadent noodles, and northerners take them crisp and pure. Budding cooks are increasingly stirring the pot. You can find pho wherever you find Vietnamese communities: there are almost 2,000 pho restaurants in North America, and many supermarkets now sell pho kits and instant pho bowls.
Noodle slurping was an effective cover for a Viet Cong spy cell
The noodle dish continues to evolve, taking many guises around the world, including crawfish pho, sous-vide-beef pho and pho fried rice. These cross-cultural banquets speak to entwined peoples, customs and habits. Yet the noodle bowl remains political. In 2016 an American chef was castigated for a piece entitled “This is How You Should be Eating Pho”: he was accused both of cultural appropriation and being downright patronising. As the dish’s forebears testify, there’s only one right way to enjoy a steaming bowl of pho – with delight.■
Emma Irving is a freelance writer based in London
ILLUSTRATIONS: MARK SMITH