Vietnamese noodles: a cultural pho-nomenon

In Hà Nội, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the best phở noodle soup is found in the grimiest restaurants, where the staff are rude, the queues long, and the surroundings spartan at best.

Phở, a simple soup of beef broth, herbs, spices and rice noodles, emerged some 100 years ago in north Việt Nam and has since acquired a global following, beloved by French celebrity chefs and cash-strapped American students alike.

But in Việt Nam eating phở is akin to a religious ritual — as the late writer Nguyễn Tuân said — and the humble dish, which can be found on every street corner in the capital Hà Nội, is integral to people’s daily lives.

“I have been eating here for more than 20 years,” Trần Văn Hùng told AFP as he stood shivering in Hà Nội’s damp winter chill in the queue at the Phở Thìn restaurant.

“The staff here is always rude to me.

I’m used to it.

I don’t care,” the 39-year-old said, adding that he was raised on the noodles from the unassuming yet renowned establishment on Hà Nội’s Lò Đúc street.

Phở is a Vietnamese staple.

While traditionally a breakfast food, it is now served at all times of day and eaten regularly by rich and poor alike, usually at the same establishments, where it costs around a dollar a bowl.

“Phở is purely Vietnamese, the most unique, distinctive dish in our cuisine,” said chef Phạm Ánh Tuyết.

The noodles must be handmade, the perfect size and no more than four hours old; the ginger must be chargrilled; the broth of beef bones and oriental spices must have bubbled gently for at least eight hours over coals, she said.

“The fragrant perfume of the pho is part of the beauty of the dish,” Tuyết, who is famed for her mastery of traditional cooking, told AFP.

“No other country can make anything like phở — one of the secrets is the broth, the clear, aromatic broth,” she told AFP at her tiny restaurant, tucked away on the top floor of a wood-fronted house in Hà Nộii’s Old Quarter.

The exact origins of phở are obscure and highly controversial in Việt Nam.

It is traditionally made with beef broth, but chicken has also been used since the 1940s when the Japanese occupation resulted in a scarcity of beef.

Beef was not common in Vietnamese cooking at the turn of the century — cattle were valuable working beasts — but with the arrival of the steak-eating French colonialists, bones and other scraps became available for the soup pot.

Some experts, such as Didier Corlou, the former head chef at Hà Nội’s Metropole Hotel who has expounded phở’s virtues to international gourmands for decades, argue the dish is “Vietnamese with French influence”.

“The name ‘phở’ could have come from ‘pot au feu’ — the French dish,” Corlou told AFP, pointing out similarities between the dishes, including the grilled onion in the French dish and the grilled shallot in pho.

Another theory, Corlou said, is that as pho was first sold by roving hawkers carrying a pot and an earthenware stove — a “coffre-feu” in French — the name comes from the shouts of “feu?” “feu!” to establish if noodles were available.

Yet another argument suggests pho originated from a talented cook in Nam Định city — once Việt Nam’s largest colonial textile centre, where both French and Vietnamese workers toiled — who thought up a soup to please both nationalities.

Many Vietnamese strongly deny any French influence on their national dish, arguing it pre-dates the colonial period and is uniquely northern Vietnamese.

But whatever the real story, “phở is one of the world’s best soups,” Corlou said.

“For me Vietnamese cuisine is the best in the world.”

Corlou said that while the main ingredients of phở stay constant, the dish must evolve.

At his three Hà Nội restaurants, for example, he offers a salmon phở as well as a phở au fois gras priced at $10 a bowl — “you cannot put phở in a museum,” he said.

In the last decade, new local versions of that classic — including fresh rolls made from unsliced phở rice noodle sheets — have also emerged.

And as Việt Nam has grown richer, more expensive phở — including a reported $40 kobe beef version — has appeared.

But beyond adding more meat, there is not much you can do to improve the dish, said Hà Nội-based chef and cuisine expert Tracey Lister, who thinks the Vietnamese deserve the credit for their acclaimed noodle soup.

“It is the great dish, the celebrated dish, and I think we’ve got to let Việt Nam have that one,” Lister, the director of the Hà Nội Cooking Center, said.

“Phở truly represents Vietnamese cuisine.

It’s a simple dish yet sophisticated.

It is a very elegant dish.

It’s just a classic.”

By CAT BARTON

Source: AFP 24/1/2013

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