The first thing you need to know about pho is that it does not have roots in the French pot au feu casserole. No matter where it came from, and despite the fact that now the whole country of Vietnam is running on it, pho is usually associated with its breeding ground city, Ha Noi.
Hanoi’s pho in the 20th century
A portable pho stall in Hanoi (Source: Internet)
Pho used to be carried on portable food stalls on the narrow streets of Hanoi and only available at night. Such stalls came in the form of two chests with drawers, which were carried across the shoulders of the vendor by a bamboo yoke. On one end of the yoke bubbles a cauldron of broth over a stove. In the other chest are the accessories: meat, herbs, noodles, bowls, and some cooking utensils. They did not need to call out to inform their presence, as the aromatic steam that wafted from the broth cauldron was the best advertisement.
A pho stall in Saigon (Source: Internet)
These vendors usually dressed in the same way, a kind of uniform with brown pants, a yellow shirt and a fedora. The image of a man wearing a fedora reminded people of pho so much that they called the fedora a pho hat.
The most popular version, pho bo (pho with beef) is surprisingly a recent addition to Hanoi’s vibrant food scene
. Before the 30s, beef or even chicken pho were non-existent. A typical bowl of pho at that time was laced with buffalo meat only.
The making of pho
is no longer an unaffordable luxury but a national obsession. Steaming bowls of pho are everywhere you look in Vietnam.
A bowl of beef pho (Source: Internet)
Each serving of Hanoi’s signature noodle soup is built from the bowl up; the noodle comes first, then the meat, and the broth is ladled last. As slices of beef are put in the bowl raw, it is essential that the stock is steaming hot to cook the meat just enough to trap the savory fluid inside. A highlight of eating while sitting on the sidewalk is that you get to see how the vendor put together your pho. First, the vendor grabs a handful of noodles while the other arm reaches for the sieve. The noodles are dipped into hot water for a few seconds before slidding into the bowl. Coriander, chopped onion, and mint are arranged on top. A modest amount of beef or chicken comes next and lastly, a ladleful of hot stock. Garnishes are served on one side along with jars of pepper and some lime wedges.
Pho stands or falls on the quality of its base, which requires at least 14 hours of brewing cow bone, beef bone or chicken bone. The cauldron needs regular for tending to clear off all the bone’s impurities for a crystal clear base. Char-grilled onion and slices of old ginger roots are simmered along with the bone to remove the odor from the meat. For an extra savory flavor, oxtail, dried peanut worms, prawns, and a good quality fish sauce are added to the base.
The making of pho’s flat noodles pleases the eye as well as the stomach. Rice flour is blended with a small amount of cooked rice in a cauldron until they form a thick dough. The ratio is kept secret among the members of the family and is rarely revealed to outsiders. After being properly kneaded, the dough is rolled flat and let to cool. Then each sheet is put through a pasta cutter to slice them into threads. In Hanoi, the vendors cut up pho’s noodles as they serve them to maintain freshness.
Pho’s flat noodle (Source: Internet)
A bowl of pho cannot be complete without the herbs. These garnishes include chopped spring onion, coriander and Thai basil. Vietnamese mint, helencha, and regular basil are recent additions, and never accompany the traditional pho.
Pho is a perfect example of the Hanoian’s knack for turning humble ingredients into something spectacular. Although pho can now be found everywhere, helloVietnam
thinks that no restaurant can stand up to the tastiness of the noodle soup found on the sidewalk of the old city of Hanoi.
Learn more about Hanoi food here: