Why Is Pho Top Dish?
A short history of the No. 1 dish of Vietnam, and how and where to enjoy it in HCM City
There is a multitude of delicious dishes in Vietnam. Therefore, the rolling controversy over the best Vietnamese dish may continue forever. However, if forced to single out only one,
Our answer will be pho. Why?
"Above all, a bowl of pho [pho is always in a bowl] is a universal dish for Vietnamese, regardless of their age, sex, occupation and place in the social hierarchy," says Ly Quy Trung, managing director of Nam An Group, which owns the Pho 24 restaurant chain. "What's more, pho is the food that can be eaten at any time, day and night."
Trung says that in nutritional terms, pho provides three main types of food-protein (beef or chicken meat), glucid (pho noodles are made of rice) and lipids. Pho can be served with a variety of spicy vegetables and bean sprouts. "Pho deserves the name 'the food of Vietnam' on an international scale because it isn't too spicy and must be served hot, typical of Asian dishes," Trung says.
Given these characteristics, it's hard to find a Vietnamese dish that is comparable to pho whether it is cha gio (spring rolls), banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake), canh chua (sour soup) or ca kho (braised fish with fish sauce).
The origin of pho
A national dish, pho has a history much shorter than other traditional dishes such as bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup), bun moc (northern soup), bun thang (Hanoi chicken soup), chao long (pig internal organ porridge) and banh cuon (steamed rolls). Some sources report that pho has its origin in northern Vietnam; some says Hanoi is the cradle of pho.
Pho is cooked mainly with beef and cow bones. In the old days, beef was not part of the daily menu of Vietnamese, who were mostly farmers, as their cattle were their most important draft force. In the 19th century the French arrived in Hanoi bringing with them the habit of eating beefsteak. Eating beef became more popular. Several butcher shops began to sell beef. Occasionally, some beef and cow bones could not be sold, and they were cooked to eat with bun, a kind of rice noodle. Gradually, bun was replaced by banh pho (pho noodles). As such, pho came into existence.
At first, pho was sold from big boxes carrying the soup, borne by peddlers. By early 1920s, the first pho shops appeared in Hanoi.
Hanoi pho goes southward
About 20 years after the appearance of Hanoi's first pho shops, pho covered a 2,000-km distance to arrive in Saigon. Saigonese had pho sold from pushcarts, mostly pho chin (pho with well-done brisket).
After the Geneva peace accord in 1954, pho quickly became a popular dish standing side by side with hu tieu (rice noodle soup). As well as pho chin, there have also been pho tai (rare beef), pho nam (well-done flank), pho gau (fat brisket), pho gan (soft tendon) and pho sach (tripe). Then chicken was used in addition to beef.
Again, in 1975, when the country reunited, northern pho traveled south with such names as Hanoian pho, Bac Hai pho and Bac Ha pho. Today, Cam Chi restaurant in District 1 is one of the top addresses for Hanoian pho in HCM City.
Pho has earned its status as Vietnam's most popular dish. However, there are two "schools" of pho: Hanoian pho and Saigonese pho. Cha�o! has consulted with several owners of pho shops in HCM City about the difference between these two types (see box). In general, Hanoian pho differs from its Saigonese version in noodles, broth and vegetables. Hanoian pho uses a slightly stronger noodle with wider surface; the broth of Saigonese pho is sweeter. Hanoians often eat pho with boiled spring onion, and Saigonese add spicy vegetables and a lot of bean sprouts to their bowl.
These differences are not basic, though, because both Hanoian and Saigonese pho has the original taste of pho, which cannot be mistaken for any other dish. Be it Hanoian pho or Saigonese pho, it is delicious.