Pho noodle soup has been around for over 100 years. It’s iconic to people who identify with it as Vietnam’s national food, but for those who’ve recently tried the steamy bowls of rice noodles, thinly sliced meat, and gently spiced broth, pho is merely a new food find.
Pho arrived in America in 1975 with the wave of Vietnamese refugees, and over the decades it has moved from the margins into the mainstream. This year pho became an “it” food, gracing the March cover of Food & Wine magazine, being cited in Google’s annual food trends report, and serving as the subject of the Lucky Peach summer issue.
In September, Bon Appetit magazine identified pho as the new ramen. The editors featured a non-Vietnamese chef in an instructional video on how to eat pho. The video ignited a heated online debate about cultural appropriation. Who gets to authoritatively speak about pho? Who decides on the do’s and don’ts of eating it? Who owns it?
As a diehard pho fan since I was a 5-year-old in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and the author of the upcoming “The Pho Cookbook,” I had some skin in the game. Pho has a backstory that’s as rich as a good pho broth. The facts are somewhat murky but most people agree that pho was born in and around Hanoi at the beginning of the 20th century.
French colonialists ordered the slaughtering of cows for dishes they craved. They left the bones and scraps to local cooks, who were used to cows as draft animals but soon found a way to turn the leftover bits into delicious noodle soup. At first pho was sold as affordable street food that was customized for each diner. As the soup’s popularity spread from north to south Vietnam, pho fans came from all backgrounds. The noodle soup has inspired cooks, poets, and even political insurgents.
According to a Vietnamese dictionary entry circa 1930, the term pho was derived from phan, the Vietnamese pronunciation of fen, the Chinese term for flat rice noodle. Given pho’s tangled history, pho not only refers to the noodle soup but is also shorthand for the dish’s flat rice noodles, banh pho.
While most people know pho as a beefy bowl, chicken pho has been around since the late 1930s. About that same time, cooks also came up with pho xao don, panfried pho rice noodles topped with a saucy stir-fry.
Creative Vietnamese professional chefs and home cooks have kept the pho evolution going strong. On a trip to Vietnam in October 2015, I tried a chicken pho noodle salad with the broth on the side for sipping or seasoning the noodles. It was a delicious favorite with millennials in Hanoi. Closer to home, I’ve sampled the pho baguette sandwich at the Costa Mesa restaurant East Borough and gotten hot tips on the “phoritto” burrito at Komodo, the L.A. restaurant and food truck.
With all the pho around, should you take the time to make it? Unless you’re cooking for your entire clan or a restaurant, you don’t have to simmer a huge amount of broth overnight or for as long as 24 hours.
During the busy holiday season, I ditch my old school, long-simmered pho that serves eight and instead opt for a quick 40-minute pho to satisfy our household of two. The recipe involves supermarket ingredients. Stores such as Ralphs, Whole Foods, and Vons stock rice noodles (Annie Chun’s pad Thai noodles work great) and fish sauce (Megachef and Redboat are superb) in the Asian food section. The only “special” equipment I use is a piece of hand-torn, lightweight muslin purchased at a fabric shop. Used for straining broth, muslin works like a champ for producing clear results and it’s washable to boot; in a pinch, I’ve substituted paper towels, a paper coffee filter, or multiple layers of cheesecloth.
Quick chicken pho is my go-to this time of year because it’s light and tonic-like, a perfect counterbalance to the holiday feasts. The basic idea is this: doctor up store-bought chicken broth so that it’s pho-ish and poach boneless chicken in it. If I want to impress four people with an uncommon pho, I make pho ga tron, that pho chicken noodle salad. For the chicken and broth required, I simply poach a pound of boneless chicken in the quick chicken pho broth.
Herb-wise, I stick with cilantro for soup assembly and mint for the garnish plate, along with chile slices, bean sprouts, and maybe lime. Mint is a traditional Hanoi pho herb that’s overlooked in America. It adds bright, zippy notes to pho and pairs exceptionally well with chicken.
If you’ve been on the fence about making pho or think that it’s a weekend project, whip up a fast batch. Then try different kinds and tinker.
No one may claim pho but the Vietnamese because it was created on Vietnamese soil under a unique set of circumstances. But as pho has traveled beyond Vietnam and become a global food, now it belongs to everyone.