A piping hot bowl of beef pho by Aaron Joel Santos
To the casual visitor, the province of Nam Dinh flies relatively under the radar. Situated in the Red River Delta, it is known for productive agricultural areas, beautiful churches and an underperforming football club.
Yet this area has played a critical role in shaping Vietnam. Tran Hung Dao, the 13th-century national hero who helped defeat invading Mongol hordes, hailed from these parts. But Nam Dinh’s most significant contribution to modern Vietnam is the beef noodle soup that is said to have originated in the province.
Legends and wild origin myths mean that many histories in Vietnam are coloured a variety of shades. Such is the case with pho, the country’s most famous dish, and its most successful culinary export, about which a truly definitive history has not yet been written.
While Nam Dinh is believed to be the geographical cradle of pho, few would dispute that its spiritual home is Hanoi. It was in the capital that the intersection of several historical and cultural factors led to the popularisation of the noodle soup.
The ball started rolling in earnest at the end of the 19th century during the peak years of French colonialism. French demand led to a greater availability of beef. This in turn produced a surplus of beef bones, which were used by Chinese and Vietnamese vendors to deepen and perfect the flavour of the Nam Dinh broth.
By this time pho was gaining serious traction in Hanoi. It evolved from a noodle soup called xao trau, a simple dish made with slices of water buffalo meat cooked in broth with rice vermicelli. Buffalo meat was swapped with beef, round rice noodles were added and the humble — verging on austere — classic Hanoi take on pho was perfected.
Beef bones, flank steak oxtails, charred onion, charred ginger and spices including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom and coriander were used to make the slow-cooked broth. Garnishes were limited to some fresh chilli slices and a few herbs.
Migrant workers from the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangdong loved it due to its similarity to dishes from back home. The Vietnamese, meanwhile, having developed a taste for beef, grew equally enamoured.
By the 1930s, ganh pho — roaming vendors shouldering mobile kitchens on bamboo poles — had become a ubiquitous sight in the streets of the Old Quarter.
Since then pho has been inexorably entwined with the national psyche. In his poem “An Ode to Pho,” poet Tu Mo celebrated the subtle flavour of the soup and its egalitarianism; it was a dish loved by both rich and poor.
Like Vietnam itself, the dish has undergone impactful changes. Privation during hard times resulted in some pretty meagre bowls of soup hitting the streets. The most divisive shake up, however, occurred when pho moved south along with millions of northerners following the partition of the country in 1954.
Unshackled in this southern land of plenty, chefs started sweetening their broth and accessorising with a hedge-load of herbs as well as other blasphemous (to die-hard northern traditionalists, at least) additions like hoisin and chilli sauce.
The “broth-off” continues to this day with pho purists erring towards simpler Hanoi pho. In truth, both versions are delicious and the main difference between the two is really the extra fixings of the southern version.
While debate still rages as to the identity of Vietnam’s best pho, it could be argued that the dish hasn’t actually evolved all that radically since the early years. Different cuts of meat have been brought to the table. Now instead of a simple broth with boiled beef, diners can choose from a range of beef cuts including rare beef (tai), flank (nam), brisket (gau), tripe (sach), tendon (gan) and meatballs (bo vien). The invention of chicken pho (pho ga) in 1939 caused ructions for a while. But, by and large, pho has stayed true to its original tenets. Why mess around with a good thing?
That said, pho is not an immovable feast. Some young chefs in Vietnam are experimenting with items such as brown rice noodles and fresh pho noodle rolls. Overseas, chefs are getting even wilder and crazier with additions such as crawfish and sous vide beef.
Subtle innovations are one thing, wholesale tampering is quite another. As one of the world’s classic noodle dishes, pho has more than earned its right to respect.
Best pho in Hanoi: Pho Thin, 13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District in Hanoi
Best pho in Ho Chi Minh City: Pho Hoa, 260C Pasteur Street, District 3 in Ho Chi Minh City