“So, what do you feel like eating tonight?”
“I dunno. How about some fur?”
“Ummmm. You want to eat… fur?”
“Yeah, you know. Vietnamese noodle soup!”
You know you’ve had this conversation before. No matter where you live, chances are, there’s a pho restaurant near you, complete with a stainless steel chopsticks holder, laminated menus with prices whited out, fake wood laminate tables and a sullen, pimply faced teenager waiting to take your order.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love pho. I mean, what’s not to love? Steaming hot and filling, a mix of broad rice noodles, broth that’s been simmering for hours, crunchy vegetables and herbs and loads of beef in all its forms (even the forms we don’t normally or necessarily want to see).
As a kid, I’d love it when my mom made pho. The smells of ginger and onions roasting over the fire wafted throughout the house. The unbearably long wait to simmer the beef bones to extract all their marrowy goodness. The constant skimming of the broth to remove the scum, ensuring the broth was beautifully light and clear.
But the last time I was home for a visit, things weren’t quite the same. Instead of a 3 hour wait for pho, my mom simply went into the pantry and armed with a can opener, cracked open a tin of instant pho broth. I never thought I’d see the day…
Update: Just a day after posting this, a very talented reader produced her own painting of the above picture. How cool is that? See more of her artwork here.
But now that I’m in Vietnam and there’s often a pho restaurant across the street from another pho restaurant, I’m in Pho Heaven. (Pheaven?)
Actually, when researching an article on pho, I went to my favorite pho restaurant in Binh Thanh, Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a nameless, menu-less place down a side street but cooks up some of the most flavorsome pho I’ve ever had. While the cheapest pho place I’ve found was VND 25,000 (USD 1.20), this place was reasonably priced at VND 35,000 a bowl. Run by 5 sisters who took over the restaurant from their father, himself a Northerner who came to Saigon when it was still called Saigon, the restaurant is a neighborhood institution.
What was a grown man doing asking about how to make pho? Nga, the fourth of five sisters, was tickled when she heard I wanted to write an article about what’s been called Vietnam’s national dish. Originating in Hanoi at around the turn of the century, pho’s origins may be Chinese or French, depending on who you want to believe. Either way, it started as a peasant dish and has now made it to the big leagues.
Pho 24, an international chain which started in Vietnam, claims to put in 24 ingredients and cook it for 24 hours.
During our hour-long conversation, I asked her what to do with all those pesky herbs (answer: tear them all up and throw them all in), what’s changed about pho in the 30 years she’s been making it (answer: it used to be considered a breakfast food but now people stop in for a bowl after work and after a night of drinking, no longer hampered by the nighttime curfews of the war years) and whether she ever gets sick of pho, literally being around it 20 hours a day, 7 days a week (answer: no).
In fact, as she was talking about the history of pho, when it included carrots and radishes put in by the farmers, it reminded me not a little of the old story of Stone Soup.
While I’ve had pho in Bangkok, Honolulu, London and Prague, it’s still the best here in Vietnam. Cheap, delicious, filling. Pho. It’s what’s for dinner.
For the full text to this story, see my feature article in Bootsnall, an awesome site for indie travel.