Phở, not just a food

December 10, 2019 - 08:17

There have been countless articles, books, travel guides and comments from gastronomes, journalists, authors and tourists worldwide about phở.

Việt Nam has chosen December 12 every year as 'Phở Day' to honour the dish. Hoàng Hồ writes about the significance of the noodle soup. 

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There have been countless articles, books, travel guides and comments from gastronomes, journalists, authors and tourists worldwide about phở.

There's no disputing the popularity of this national dish, the latest example being just two months before the national 'Day of Phở' (December 12th), CNN ranked phở bò (beef noodle soup) as the 28th best food in the world.

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So, I felt under a lot of pressure when I began writing about this dish.

What can be said about phở when everything from the beef to the broth and noodles has been discussed in god knows how many articles. Almost every angle has been covered.

Well, almost.

Yes, there has been a lot written about the food, but the connoisseurs and cooks, well that's a different story.

It’s not going too far to say that phở was, is and always will be a symbol, not just a dish, for Vietnamese people. 

Phở bò (beef noodle) is a popular phở in the capital that lures mass dinners including foreign visitors. — VNS Photo Trương Vị

Painter Trịnh Trí eats phở literally every day and the dish has played an indispensable role in the life of this 80-year-old Hanoian.

Phở is something I couldn’t live without. No, it’s more than just 'something', it’s an art. I eat at least one bowl of phở a day or else I would feel like I'm missing something.

“You want tasty and delicious phở, you will have to respect the food first. When it comes to phở, it’s like a national pride and Vietnamese can sometimes be super picky."

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Whether you agree or not, whose voice has more weight than Vũ Bằng, one of the most famous Vietnamese gastronomes? And he agreed with Trí.

“A picky connoisseur mustn’t take it easy when choosing a phở shop, especially random shops”, Bằng wrote in his famous book The Delicious Dishes of Hà Nội.

There were three kinds of phở store at that time: vendors, restaurants and phở made on mobile trolleys.

Bằng believed it’s not about how beautiful or modern the shop is, the only thing diners care about is phở

“To be honest, the only thing connoisseurs care about is the noodles, no matter how the space is, if the rice noodles are thin and pliable, the beef is soft and the broth is truly rich in flavour, which is sweet from the bone. That bowl of phở is really worth trying”.

“At that time, there was a rumors the broth in those fancy stores couldn’t compete against other ordinary old stores in the sweetness, the rich in flavour. If it is sweet, it can only due to MSG rather than the bone of ox. Not to mention some of them even add sugar inside.

“Eating a bowl of phở like that not only makes you regret spending money, but also wastes your time and effort," Bằng asserted.

According to Bằng, there’s no other food that makes people “suffer” just to have a delicious bowl.

There used to be hundreds of customers waiting outside a small lane on Hàng Khay Street just to try a couple bowls of phở in a really old and simple vendor shop.

In the morning, people used to queue all over Hàm Long Street junction to try tàu bay phở - one of the most famous examples of the dish at that time.

Phở is not just a dish, not just an enjoyment of senses, but also a 'problem' when discussing savouring and making it," Bằng wrote.

For me, there isn’t any better way to solve that problem than by depicting my grandfather’s story.

“In 1952, on Hàng Khay Street, there was one of the most famous phở stores at that time – Phở Tráng (Tráng is the name of the chef). Many people loved eating there, in an uplifting mood, some people called him 'The king of phở 1952',” he recalled.

The atmosphere of Tráng making phở and customers waiting in a really long queue is still vivid in my grandfather's memory.

“Tráng was one of the most bizarre people I’ve ever seen. It was like he didn’t care about any of his customers, he just stayed completely silent, chopping beef and making broth at a very relaxed speed despite countless customers surrounding, yelling, screaming, even swearing at him.

“I saw all classes of people eating there, from people stepping out of cars, beautiful and classy women to workers. Despite that, he didn’t seem to care about them at all, many of them felt really uncomfortable when meeting him."

But they had no other choices, because his phở was one a kind.

“We knew it was going to be delicious even before eating. A little bit of noodles, some fresh fragrant herbs, a few yellow and red slices of ginger and chilli, etc. It was just like a colourful painting.

“After that, Tráng would serve customers with different beef according to their orders. From eye round steak, flank, tendon, tripe, and fatty flank. After that, adding some pepper, lemon or vinegar. Finally, a perfect noodle poem is composed”.

Throughout time, phở stores have sprouted up across the world, so maybe some people see phở as no different than a normal dish.

I hope these little stories can help remind us again how precious phở is, not only for Vietnamese people, but for all the world. — VNS