I told you we’d get back to this topic! Today, many Americans are familiar with Vietnam’s national dish, pho, but the history of how it came to be still remains widely unknown. Despite growing up in a Vietnamese household, I knew very little about pho, believing my family’s way of preparing it was the most authentic (if you were to ask any Viet person you know, they’d all say their family’s recipe is the best). It was only after a little digging that I came to realize just how little I knew of pho’s origin story, and the tri-cultural collision that led to its eventual creation.
Now, despite some variation, most sources point toward the northern region of Vietnam, near the Hanoi area, as the location where pho was first made. It was here that pho’s true foundation was established through the influence of a triumvirate of cultures – French, Chinese, and of course, Vietnamese. It was the French, and their love for beef, that resulted in all sorts of leftover bones and offal being added to early versions of pho. During the French occupation in the early 1900s, cattle, which the Vietnamese typically used for manual labor, were slaughtered to satisfy the French appetite. The scraps that weren’t used were salvaged, and then sold by Hanoi butchers, ultimately making its way into the noodle soup dishes that restaurants and street vendors began selling. And given Hanoi’s close proximity to China’s southern border, many of these restaurant owners and street vendors were actually Chinese, and thus, contributed their own styles of cooking to this melting pot of a dish.
This is how the pho-nomenon got its start. The original pho from the North, called, “pho bac,” was served with long, flat noodles in a savory broth, topped with thin slices of beef, onion, and scallions. It was considered pure, and less embellished by other ingredients, representing the region’s overall simplistic lifestyle. The cultural collision between French, Chinese, and Vietnamese influences, in combination with the dish’s growing popularity in the South – where agriculture was abundant and prosperous – led to the incorporation of a wider array of ingredients such as Thai basil, chili sauce, bean sprouts, hoisin-like sauce, and lime wedges. Pho evolved into a form better suited to the Southern taste palette, and was later dubbed, “pho nam,” by the Southerners.
Subsequently, as Vietnamese refugees resettled in various parts of the world after the Vietnam War, they brought their pho recipes with them. Many opened up pho restaurants, made pho for their friends at home, and shared their techniques within their communities. To adapt to the world’s ever changing environment and fit an increasingly wide array of taste palettes, many variations of pho emerged. From adding chicken (which is common now, but was vehemently rejected by pho purists in the past) to infusing the broth in red wine, the beloved dish has taken on countless new forms.
While there’s still much debate on the best way to prepare Vietnam’s national dish, one thing’s for certain: pho is constantly evolving and absorbing the flavors of its environment. No pho bowl is the same, so it’s a good thing we listed a few of our personal favorites for you to try!
P.S. In case you were wondering, my family makes pho nam.
Nong La Cafe
Blossom Vietnamese Restaurant
Mama Hong Vietnamese Kitchen