Phở: Việt Nam’s ‘Democratic’ Dish

Published May 24, 2017 in Episode 72

Jenny Lý: Hello Lilly!

Lilly Nguyễn: Hi Jenny! It's been awhile! How are you?

Jenny Lý: I’m doing a lot better. I was feeling, you know, under the weather. I’m recovering from a cold and legit just had some phở my mom made at home just now.

Lilly Nguyễn: I am so glad to hear you are feeling better. Phở is always the perfect pick-me-up for me.

Jenny Lý:  You told me you had a chance to catch up with Andrea Nguyễn, the author of The Pho Cookbook that just came out a few months ago about her love for phở. How’d that go? I know she's on her book tour at the moment.

Andrea Nguyễn's recently released The Pho Cookbook.   (Photo: John Lee, courtesy Andrea Nguyễn)

Andrea Nguyễn's recently released The Pho Cookbook. (Photo: John Lee, courtesy Andrea Nguyễn)

Lilly Nguyễn: My conversation with Andrea went really well! I had the chance to meet her in person at one of her book signing events in San Francisco. I always knew that food plays a major role in defining culture as well as identity, but there's just so much about phờ I didn't know, even as a Vietnamese person.

Lilly Nguyễn: Thank you chị Andrea for your time. Last time we heard from you, it was about bánh mì. Now you have a Phở Cookbook! We just want to catch up with you and see what inspired you to embark on such a journey of publishing your own phở cookbook.
Well you know, after The Bánh Mì Handbook, I thought, “Well, what about phở?” People just say to me, “You know so much about phở,” because I was teaching people how to make phở and I had done fair amount of research about phở, have written articles about phở history. And they said, “You can write a book,” and my publisher suggested it. So I came up with a lot of wonderful, wonderful history about phở and it has this amazing amount of depth because we don’t know that much about it. But it played a crucial role in Vietnamese modern history.
— Andrea Nguyễn

Jenny Lý: So lucky you got to meet her!  I know Andrea is super knowledgeable about Việt food. I mean I just love how she was breaking down bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich in an previous Loa episode. What kind of things did you learn from her?

Lilly Nguyễn: I was very impressed with Andrea’s thorough knowledge on the origin of phở. To fully understand the origin of phở, Andrea actually spent quite some time in Việt Nam. She went back to Việt Nam. She travelled from North to South, tracing back to the possible place where the first bowls of phở were sold. So what I've learned from Andrea is that we'll probably never know for certain how phở first came about because there are many different theories, different variations... But I definitely sensed her love for phở as she shared her recipes, from easy to adventurous recipes with all phở lovers.

So I think phở has always been very democratic. Phở came about over 100 years ago in Hà Nội. It started out as the people’s food, street food. Very simple food, just rice noodle, broth and boiled beef. Then it became more complicated with steak (phở tái), you can have phở xào (stir fried), or phở giòn (pan fried). And then all these different kinds of dishes like phở gà (chicken phở). I wanted to communicate this notion that phở is democratic and it’s open to everyone. There’s been all kinds of notions about phở being food that Vietnamese people of all different classes and economic backgrounds can enjoy at the table and make in the kitchen.
— Andrea Nguyễn
Andrea Nguyễn, author of The Pho Cookbook. (Photo: Common Thread Creative/Genevieve Pierson)

Andrea Nguyễn, author of The Pho Cookbook. (Photo: Common Thread Creative/Genevieve Pierson)

Jenny Lý: It seems like everyone is hopping on the phở train these days. The beef broth is a hipster trend, you know? I see why some people are finally learning all its nutrients and health benefits of the beef broth. But phở has been mentioned so much on the Food Network and remember that Bon Appétit controversy from last year too?

To be honest, it kinda bothers me all this fusion phở, or especially when it’s made by non-Vietnamese people. And I get that in some places, it can be hard to find Vietnamese people who would be cooks in the kitchen especially when the kids in these family-owned businesses don't want to work there anymore.

Lilly Nguyễn: Let me just say that there's nothing wrong with a white or non-Việtnamese chef cooking phở and serving phở. But I won't go as far as: “This is how you should be eating phở!”

Jenny Lý: I mean phở is very much related to the Vietnamese identity and why in the world would Bon Appétit feature a white person telling people how to properly eat phở? It's like featuring an Asian telling Italians how to make pizza.

Lilly Nguyễn: But, for me, fusion is not really so much a problem. I don't mind new renditions of phở if it has a good expression of phở flavors and ingredients.

Jenny Lý: Actually, Tâm Lê, the owner of Phở Linh, would agree with you. I spoke to him two week ago and he says something very similar when I asked him about all the fusion phở that's out there.

Food is love, and we should just do our best to promote and spread our culture and if other people want to take to it, and adapt to it, and kind of simulate to it, make it their own, then I would say the more the merrier.
— Tâm Lê

Jenny Lý: For me, I like that there's a big appreciation for phở these days, but it just really annoys me when certain food becomes such a fad that it becomes so overpriced, and not to mention the taste changes so much from what it originally was. And perhaps that's my Vietnamese roots speaking.

Lilly Nguyễn: Sure, I see what you are saying but I think food and culture is always evolving though. Even in Việt Nam, there are constantly new dishes and new ways people are adding to phở.

So I was in Hà Nội, I went there and I ordered the cocktail, and it was all the phở spices. They put them in this contraption where you would pour the liquor, gin, through this contraption and you light the liquor on fire. So it picks up the natural oils and the perfume of the spices. At the end that’s combined with some other liquors as well. I think it was a little Contreau they put in there. They had some chili and cilantro. It was like $24. The person who came up with that cocktail had worked in a phở stall before in Việt Nam. So he had some cred, and he’s one of the leading mixologists in Việt Nam right now. I just thought wow, people are thinking of phở in so many ways.
— Andrea Nguyễn

Lilly Nguyễn: Not to state the obvious but I think phở is the most successful Vietnamese culinary export from the motherland. It's delicious, it's comforting, it's versatile, and it has played a crucial role in modern Vietnamese history. Not to mention, phở cures everything right? 

Jenny Lý: I agree that phở is definitely healing. But all these adaptations have me wondering, aside from the standard ingredients, what is really the essential soul recipe that makes this amazing noodle soup?

Lilly Nguyễn: I actually asked Andrea the same question about what makes phở, “phở”? The short answer is everything. There isn’t one component of phở that is more important than the other.

For me it is both the noodle soup, and also what goes into there: the spices, the aromatics such as ginger and onions. Phở also means the noodles, because the term phở comes from the Chinese word “phun.” It means noodle!
— Andrea Nguyễn

Lilly Nguyễn: Hold on, did you catch that? Andrea says that the term phở is not French in origin, despite claims that the pronunciation bears resemblance to feu, as in pot au feu. That's a French dish and it means “pot on a fire." To me a more reasonable explanation to me is the French-Việt-Chinese connection that I mentioned earlier.

What you want to do is you want to make sure you’re going to somehow sear or char the aromatics. What I mean by aromatics is the ginger, as well as the onion and the shallots. That process of charring it over a flame—or you can use a grill if you want, you can do it under the broiler—but it is converting the sugars in those ingredients so they’re slightly sweeter. So it’s not so raw when you put it into the pot for making the broth. And then you also have your spice blend.
— Andrea Nguyễn

Jenny Lý: I know Tâm also says it's the broth that makes phở and I would certainly agree!

The broth is really the heart of the phở, and it’s a process. It’s a long process. It takes in total, six to nine hours. The broth is very temperamental, so it takes a lot of care and a lot of oversight and there is many, many steps involved. So when you do eat a bowl of phở, there is a lot of love that goes into that broth. What’s important is that the broth turns in terms of, like, the restaurant needs to be somewhat busy, so that you’re always having a fresh broth, something that been turned and cooked within 24 hours prior.
— Tâm Lê
Phở Linh owner Tâm Lê (Photo courtesy: Tâm Lê)

Phở Linh owner Tâm Lê (Photo courtesy: Tâm Lê)

Jenny Lý: Yes, making the phở broth is super intense. I have tried it myself and it's so much work. I was just talking to an older Vietnamese man who tells me it takes him typically four hours just to marinate the bones. But he was also telling me to use this Korean beef paste if I am lazy about cooking with real beef bones.

Lilly Nguyễn: Yeah, I’ve seen similar premixed phở in the Vietnamese supermarkets a well. I think the perfect phở broth is totally a true labor of love. It take so long! No wonder people just prefer to just go out and just "phở to go!" 

Jenny Lý: The broth not only takes time but also energy and cost too. That's why I am hearing many phở restaurants don't even use bones anymore, which breaks my heart because I love bone broth! I wonder if it takes away from that authenticity we talked about.

We use both bones and the beef. It is an added cost, but in terms of the complexity and the richness and depth of the broth, it adds something that—you notice it when you take it away. Whether it’s the bone marrow or whatever it is that í just being put back into the broth. So for our restaurants, we do see the pressures of raising prices. Anything beef related, prices have gone up over the past couple of years, whether it’s the meat or the bones. But we definitely want to maintain the high level quality of our broth. It cuts into our margins, but we want to put out the best product that we can, so we sacrifice a little bit of margins to maintain that.
— Tâm Lê

Lilly Nguyễn: You know, phở is so personal so it’s all up to your own taste preferences. 

So there’s a regional phở fight. People are like, phở is a dish from Hà Nội. Phở Hà Nội is more salty than sweet, served in smaller portions than Southern-style phở Sài Gòn. You get very few garnishes, like there’s no plate of bean sprouts. There is no Thai basil on the plate, no lime wedges all the time either. What you’ll get is often times a garlic vinegar on the table, which sounds weird, but it adds a little bit of a tart note, a bit of brightness to your phở broth. There’s no Hoisin, no Sriracha. Here in the States what we mostly get is Sài Gòn-style phở. So it’s bigger portions, and also the broth is a little bit sweeter from the addition of Chinese rock sugar.
— Andrea Nguyễn

Jenny Lý: Why Chinese rock sugar? Does it have to be Chinese?

Lilly Nguyễn: Rock sugar is a semi-unrefined sugar that helps round out the flavors of many noodle soup broths. So particularly for phở, it brings the flavors together and gives the phở broth the complex flavor.

Jenny, one last thing, so before my chat with Andrea, I had solicited phở questions from my friends, asking them if they have any questions for Andrea and if they wanted to know any tips on the side. Andrea was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to provide us some insights. Listeners can check out the full Q&A tips on our Web Exclusives page. You won't be disappointed!

Jenny Lý: All this talk of phở is making me super hungry. I am going to eat more phở my mom made right now! It was fun talking phở with you Lilly. I hope we did it justice.

Lilly Nguyễn: Phở sure, Jenny!

To order Andrea Nguyễn's The Pho Cookbook, click here.