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Travel writers rave about Ha Noi's un-pho-gettable soup

Update: January, 06/2014 - 08:04
Bo-wl of heaven: A bowl of pho bo (noodle soup with beef). Vietnamese pho was recommended by Huffington Post as one of 12 dishes travellers should try. — VNS Photos Khanh Chi

by Nguyen Khanh Chi

HA NOI (VNS) — A favourite dish of the Vietnamese people, the pho noodle soup, has been recommended as a "bowl of heaven" by The Huffington Post, a US newspaper website.

The online newspaper lists the dish as one of the most delicious foods people should discover while travelling abroad. Simply a combination of broth, fresh rice noodles, thinly sliced beef or chicken, with a sprinkle of aromatic herbs, pho is ranked 11 out of the list of top 12 foods.

"There are many delectable treats out there, to be sure. Here's just a sampling of some delicacies whose truest, most scrumptious forms you will only come across while travelling," the online newspaper wrote last week.

The noodle soup is typically associated with the capital city, as the late Vietnamese writer Thach Lam made clear in one of his works in the 1930s on local cuisine:

"Pho is a specialty of Ha Noi. You can taste it in other places. But the pho is better in Ha Noi than anywhere else."

Visit the capital, especially in the early morning, and you're likely to see people queuing up and sitting on plastic stools at street stalls for a hot bowl of pho.

Street eats: People queue up and sit side by side on plastic stools for hot bowls of pho on Phung Hung Street in Ha Noi's Old Quarter.

Breakfast choice

The dish has become a breakfast favourite for the majority of local residents, as well as some foreign expats.

"I have eaten pho since I was a little boy; I could have it every morning, as well as any time of the day," said 40-year-old Hanoian Bui Tuan Hai, a resident living in the city's Old Quarter.

"I have tasted pho in other cities like HCM City, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Brisbane, but the taste is completely different from Ha Noi's pho.

"The dish is not simply a type of food, but a culture that I miss the most whenever I am far away from the city."

For Canadian restaurant owner Donald Berger, a good bowl of Ha Noi pho bo (beef noodle) or pho ga (chicken noodle) for breakfast is a great way to start the day with his Vietnamese wife and their son.

"Pho is light, not fattening yet nutritious, delicious and fragrant with Vietnamese spices. It is also really good for lunch and late night," said the chef patron at Don's.

"Vietnamese have a funny saying about rice and pho: Rice is like the wife you have at home, but pho is best outside (meaning the mistress!)," he added, showing his deep understanding of Vietnamese cuisine and culture.

It is the number one choice among 40 delicious Vietnamese dishes that CNN reporters Helen Clark and Karryn Miller suggested in their writing in October 2011.

"What list of Vietnamese cuisine would be complete without pho? It's almost impossible to walk a block in Viet Nam's major cities without bumping into a crowd of hungry patrons slurping noodles at a makeshift pho stand," they wrote.

CNN earlier placed pho No 28 among the world's 50 best foods, implying that some foods you eat to stay alive, while others you eat because to not eat them would be a crime.

Cultural icon

Pho is considered a national treasure; so much so that the soup even warranted a conference years ago, covering the social, culinary and historic aspects of the dish.

"Pho was very special, almost a status food. We loved it because it had everything we valued – rice noodles, broth, meat and vegetables. It was complete, nutritious, infinitely delicious and yet so easy to digest that we could eat it morning and night, day after day," said Huu Ngoc, a renowned expert on Vietnamese culture.

Ngoc even writes Bat Pho Hoa Giai (literally known as pho – a noodle bowl of conciliation) to retell about a meeting between American and Vietnamese war veterans in the capital city.

"Pho – a specialty of Hanoians – has been presented to every corner of the material and spiritual life of human beings and has witnessed current affairs… That's a food of a cultural category," he wrote.

In the book, Vietnamese Street Food, Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl describe pho as being glorious and undoubtedly the most famous and quintessential Ha Noi street food.

They quote Ngoc's words to say that the dish is no less than "Viet Nam's contribution to human happiness".

Where pho originally came from remains a mystery. But there is certainly no shortage of creative theories.

In his book, Pho, a Specialty of Ha Noi (2006), co-written with American author Lady Borton, author Ngoc indicates that the birthplace of pho was in the village of Van Cu in Nam Dinh Province. Villagers do not know who created it. But they say that in 1925 a villager named Van moved to Ha Noi and opened a pho stall.

The dish was also adopted in the south in the late 1950s, when it crossed the border of the then-divided Viet Nam. However, the recipe changed in the process. In HCM City and other places in the Southern region, the dish is served in larger bowls, with the addition of aromatic herbs and fresh bean sprouts. It's often served with extra condiments such as sugar and hoisin sauce.

However, To Hai, a pho purist, in order to taste the best, the dish should stay true to the Hanoian style: a simple, soup that has a deep, rich, meaty and lightly spiced flavour, with a subtle hint of sweetness.

"The secret to a great pho is the broth – the broth will make or break your soup," he said. — VNS

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