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In Love with Pho: Experience Pho Noodle Soup
Pho Noodle Soup
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Introduced to Pho
It was a warm musky summer day, the time of the day when the day is about to fade into darkness. The time of the day when the last brilliance of the sun will slip over the horizon and darkness will spread like the wash of ink and engulf the whole of San Gabriel, an Asian community just east of Los Angeles. It was towards the end of my two-week visit to the States. My then boyfriend was trying to impress me with everything America has to offer—big spectacular national parks (we went to Zion, Arches, Yosemite and Grand Crayon), endless ocean (Redondo, Santa Monica, La Lolla), the glamour and glitz (Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas) and big sized everything from big Mac to salads enough to feed the whole family (by my reckoning). It was spectacular, it was glorious and for a small-time girl from tiny bitsy country like Singapore, totally amazing. But not enough to make me want to leave my family, my country and my friends to move here where I do not know a single person, other than my boyfriend. It would have to take something more.
We were speeding along highway 10 and contemplating dinner plans.
"Have you ever had pho?" he asked.
"Then, you absolutely have to have it."
We pulled linto a little strip mall and went into a Vietnamese restaurant. Looks sketchy from the outside but he promised I won't be disappointed.
When they brought the noodle soups, the distinctive smell of star anise and cloves was at once familiar to me. Like a piece of home. They also brought a plate of fresh vegetables and garnishing, which allows the diner to further flavor the dish in whatever way they like. I thought that was totally cool.
It was love at first bite. I’m familiar with all kinds of noodle soup from fish ball soup to curry noodles but this was slightly different from what I was used to. It was light, appetizing, and flavorful and the hint of lime made it appetizing. I thought to myself, “I could eat this every day.”
As I was leaving the restaurant, I heard some people speaking in my dialect and all at once, I felt like I could belong here.
I can’t say that was pivotal in my final decision to marry and relocate but that pho experience was like the final line that joined the final dot to make a complete picture. I guess I can blame pho.
That was some years back. Since then, pho restaurants have sprouted everywhere, moving away from traditional immigrant communities into the mainstream neighborhoods. Just in the past three years, two pho restaurants have opened in my neighborhood. Today, you can find Westerners (we lovingly call them Gweilo, meaning white people) slurping noodles alongside Asians.
What is Pho?
Pho, pronounced “fuh” is a well-known Vietnamese noodle soup, usually made with beef or chicken. It is the broth that gives the soup its characteristic flavor and the quality of the pho is often judged by tasting the broth.Since the broth is the soul of the dish, making the broth just right involves time and effort and a bunch of faithful ingredients such as:
- Marrow-rich beef bones/ chuck roast
- Yellow onions
- Star anise
- Fish sauce
- Rock sugar
Fresh vegetables and herbs
Once the broth is made, it is often used to flavor fresh rice noodles, top with thinly slice pieces of rare or cooked beef or chicken. You can eat the bowl of pho as it is but adding the garnishing can further add to the flavor and make it a totally complete meal (carb, protein and vegetables). Standard garnishings include:
- Bean Sprouts
- Asian basil
- Saw-leaf herb
- Fresh chilies (often slices of jalapeno)
- Wedges of lime
In most Vietnamese restaurants, you will also find sauces to complement the bowl of pho. Sriracha is the usual suspect, along with hoisin sauce, fish sauce and crushed chilies.
History of Pho
As with most historical accounts, there are variations as to the origin of pho. But most agree that pho originated in the north of Vietnam, in Hanoi at the turn of the century. Vietnam was under the Chinese rule for about a thousand years and the French for about a hundred years. It is surmised that in the mid 1880’s, the French love for red meat began to trigger down to the local people, especially the upper class. Some proposed the idea that pho was actually the Vietnamese spin of the French feu(fire), a classic boiled dinner pot-au-feu. The practice of browning the onion and ginger for the broth was also similar to the method used for adding roasted onion to the classic French dish.
Others beg to differ. They contend that the Chinese was the mastermind behind the creation of pho since the word pho is rather similar to “fen”(or fan in Cantonese)—the Chinese word for “noodles.” The use of Asian spices like cinnamon, cloves, star anise, ginger is also a dead giveaway.
Along the way, the simple beef broth with noodles is augmented with fresh vegetables and herbs. And that’s how food goes—they evolve over time.
So, who invented this culinary wonder? Maybe, the French and the Chinese had a hand in crafting it but really, we’ll let the experts debate while we enjoy a bowl of pho in all its pho-glory.
Sauces that comes with Pho
How to Enjoy a Bowl of Pho
- Pho comes with a variety of toppings. Check the menu and you’ll see just how many ways pho can be enjoyed—rare beef, well-done beef, slices of brisket, tendon, tripe, beef meatballs. You can also get chicken and seafood pho.
- It usually comes with a plate of fresh vegetables and herbs. While the bowl of pho is still piping hot, you may add these fresh garnishing. Simply use your fingers to pluck the basil leaves, shred the saw-leaf herb and add bean sprouts, chilies and don’t forget to squeeze the lime.
- There is a number of condiments that you can choose to augment the flavor—chili sauce, hoisin sauce and fish sauce. Purists frown at the idea of using such condiments as it adulterates the pure flavor but I love mine spiced up (shh...don't le them know).
- With all that in place, all you have to do is wield your chopsticks and spoon, dig in and enjoy.
Have you ever had pho?
But that's my call. You may not like pho for whatever reason. If that's the case, here's a couple of scenarios:
Stuck with a pho-crazy date but no so crazy about pho yourself? Try other dishes and there are many--stir-fries, barbecue meats, pan-fried noodles or small appetizers like spring rolls.
Barbecue beef with rice
Looking for something light with fewer calories? Try Vietnamese spring rolls (Goi Cuon)--delicious with peanut sauce.
Feel like going full throttle 'cos you're quite the gangster when it comes to trying exotic foods?
How about pho with tripe?