Considered one of the greatest dishes of the world, Vietnamese pho is one of those meals that people get truly passionate about. It’s up there with ramen as a cult dish right now, but here in little New Zealand, we don’t have a large Vietnamese community (like Australia has) to have taught us exactly what great pho is. So to fit in with our spice month we decided to take you on a culinary history tour so when you are next out for a pho adventure you’ll be armed with a little more information.
Starting life as a simple bowl of broth, noodles and boiled beef, pho was likely to have been a product of the interaction from which many famous dishes are born – immigration. In this case it was the cross-cultural fusion between Chinese, French and Vietnamese in Hanoi in the early 1900s. The French brought one very important element to pho: beef. Water buffalo was the main protein source in Vietnam at the time but the French love for beef, and more importantly, high-quality steaks, meant there was an excess of less-favoured beef cuts available. As these were not a usual part of the repertoire, butchers had to promote beef via cut-price specials to get some return. Clever street vendors took up the challenge and began using the beef cuts and bones to create soups that were similar to a very popular dish, named xao trau, a simple broth of rice noodles with slices of water buffalo.
The Chinese vendors in particular ran with this new beef stock and, being so closely tied to both Vietnamese and French migrants themselves, they weren’t at all concerned about this mish mash of cultures coming together in the bowl. Popularity spread and pho shops opened in the Old Quarter. Interestingly, prior to all of this intermingling, it is said that in Nam Dinh – a province about 125km out of south-east Hanoi – pho was a happening and magical thing, with many skilled pho chefs moving to the city as the dish’s fame grew. One of these great skilled pho chefs opened his Nam Dinh-style pho shop in 1925 and since then, pho became the accepted national dish of Vietnam.
The term pho itself has long been debated, but an easy explanation relates back to the Chinese who came from Yunnan to work in Vietnam. A group that always took its food with them, the Yuannese have a deliciously good noodle dish known as Crossing the Bridge Noodles, which is made of rice noodles in a broth with vegetables and meat. This dish was very similar to the aforementioned simple Vietnamese noodle soup named nguu nhuc phan (beef and rice noodle soup). Over time, that was reduced to nguu phan a by the street vendors yelling out the dish as they walked the streets. This became phan a and finally phon a or pho.
Bahn pho – rice noodles
If you are lucky you’ll get quality noodles in your pho. Go to Jin Jin in Matakana (yes, Matakana) and you’ll be spoilt by a well-seasoned, well-built pho with excellent noodles. There are three categories of bahn pho – totally dry, semi-dried and fresh – but it is most likely you’ll only ever see the first two options here in Auckland.
Pho bo – beef pho
Slowly simmered beef bones meet charred onion, ginger and spices. The charring in a traditionally made pho is thought to have come from the fire-based cooking that most Vietnamese use. Placing the onions and ginger in ashes first, to soften and give added flavour, can really give an extra taste element to your pho. Spices are taken from the array used in other Vietnamese dishes – cinnamon, star anise, cloves and black – often called brown – cardamom. The latter gives a wonderful smokiness to the dish that means you can leave out the charring process.
As far as the beef goes – you may be offered fatty brisket (gau), flank (nam), meatballs studded with tendon (bo vien) or even tendon (gan) on its own. Rare beef is known as bo tai and is a favourite – and the way we choose to go with our pho, created by Carlos Bruni, our Farro in-house chef.
Well-done beef is called bo chin and is what is offered at Jin Jin in Matakana. You may even be lucky enough to find an upmarket pho shop somewhere that offers wagyu or eye fillet!
Pho ga – chicken pho
This version is made from chicken bones and, while it may not have that same dense and very savoury intensity, it can be a lighter, refreshing pho to enjoy in hot, humid environments. Often not as assertively spiced, it will also offer shredded chicken meat on top.
The aromatics are what make pho so delicious. Those aromatics differ from region to region, chef to chef, family to family, so there are no hard and fast rules you need to live by.
Brown cardamom – being dried over fire, the resulting smokiness is incredible and can be a real benefit to marinades and curry pastes where you are looking for a natural char, a taste of the tandoor or smoky bbq taste. Grown in the cooler mountain ranges of northern Vietnam, it makes sense that it’s part of this classic Vietnamese dish.
Ginger – as a native of south-east Asia, ginger features heavily in foods of the region. As a very dominant flavour in pho ga (chicken pho), ginger gives sweetness to your stock. Try charring first under a hot grill and see what difference that makes to your stock.
Black pepper – grown in Vietnam too, it is an important spice that appears in many regional dishes … as does white pepper.
Cinnamon – having been cultivated in Hanoi for thousands of years, its warming aromatic flavour appears in many dishes and stocks. Vietnamese cinnamon has a coarseness more akin to the cassia you can buy in Indian stores here in Auckland, but Farro’s Ceylon-grown cinnamon will certainly do the trick.
Star anise – again native to the region, including China, star anise is used a lot by both cultures to highlight their love of strong and robust spice flavours. Star anise contains anethole, a flavour compound also found in other spices, which plays a chameleon role and changes that compound to a different flavour molecule, anisaldehyde, and as that interacts with flavour molecules in meat (such as bones in a stock), it creates even more new flavour compounds – incredible!
Clove – the flower bud of the myrtle tree, the oily and highly aromatic spice has a strong flavour, so has to be approached cautiously. The Chinese are big fans and it is likely that its appearance in pho is thanks to their influence.
But don’t let us dictate your ingredients. Cooking is all about experimentation and your own personal tastes so practise, try and compare other versions and create your own flavours.