Every country has at least one signature dish that is recognizable by many. Anything from pad thai to Spanish paella to Indian curry, signature dishes are exemplary of a country’s rich cultural history. Vietnam’s signature dish is pho.
This Vietnamese noodle soup is so delicious that even Anthony Bourdain loves it. During his Vietnam special on the Travel Channel‘s culinary and cultural program Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, he screams out with desire, “LET IT BE MINE!” as he sees the bowl of pho come to him. He jokingly comments that he would “jerk a butter knife across his best friend’s throat” just for the bowl of pho. The video is hilariously made with seductive music in the background, reminiscent of music you can find in a pornographic movie. Watching him eat and describe pho makes me salivate with desire! Definitely some good food porn!
The History of Pho
Pho is said to have originated in Northern Vietnam around the late 1880’s. Exact details are uncertain, but several accounts claim that pho came about after the French colonization of the country. Prior to this, it was said that cows were used for labor, not for food. When the French arrived, they started cooking with red meat. Being resourceful, the Vietnamese took the bones that the French chefs discarded and created a rich, flavorful broth, to which rice noodles and slices of beef were added for sustenance. This simple dish became known as pho.
Amid warfare and Communist rule, the people of Northern Vietnam fled to the South. It was here that this simple dish evolved into a version that we have all become familiar with. Fragrant spices such as cinnamon and star anise were added. The beef noodle soup of the South was served with a plate of fresh herb garnishes, bean sprouts, and lime.
Many of the Vietnamese people fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon. They brought with them an arsenal of recipes, including pho. Many pho restaurants sprung up around the early 1980’s. Over time, the pho recipes were adapted to western palettes, but the basis of this dish remained consistent: a clear beef broth, chewy rice noodles, various cuts of beef and beef parts, and fresh herbs for garnish.
Variations of Pho
Other variations of pho can be found all over the world. Pho ga, or chicken noodle soup, is a popular version that can be found in almost every pho restaurant. Lesser known versions include pho ca, fish noodle soup, or pho do bien, seafood noodle soup.
The Koreans also have their own version of pho, which is served with a side of kimchi and pickled onions.
Pho Trends in the United States
Having grown up in Orange County, home to California’s Little Saigon, I’ve seen the different food trends made popular by the Vietnamese community. From the banh mi craze to the boba phase, pho is becoming a mainstream phenomenon, even among the non-Vietnamese community. Its recent increase in popularity has given rise to many new pho restaurants in the area.
Now the latest visible trend seems to be the rise in price wars among existing restaurants. Bright yellow banners advertising 50% OFF PHO BO can be seen hung in front of a restaurant directly across the street from another restaurant, whose banner reads 50% OFF PHO GA.
Fierce price competition is beneficial for both my wallet and my tummy. For about $3.00, I can tease my senses and delight my appetite with a delicious, steaming hot bowl of Pho Dac Biet. For those with a bigger appetite, you can get a Pho “Xe Lua”, “train ” size, for less than a dollar more. *
Because this satisfying meal is light on the wallet, it is particularly popular among high school and college students. Certain restaurants even open 24 hours. Nothing beats a 2 a.m. pho run after a long, stressful night of studying for finals. (Those were the days!) It is also becoming a popular hang out spot for crowds returning from a night of clubbing.
Given the America’s current economic situation, I hope these price specials are here to stay!
The Pho Challenge
If a Pho Xe Lua isn’t enough to fill you up, a bigger size does exist! If you’re up for the challenge, San Francisco’s Pho Garden offers a gigantic bowl of pho filled with two pounds of noodles and two pounds of beef swimming in a sea of broth. Finish it in an hour and your meal is on the house. Also, your picture goes on the wall of fame, and most importantly, you get major bragging rights!
Pictures Taken from Pho Garden’s Facebook Fan Page: