Hanoi’s beloved beef noodle soup has evolved into a potent symbol of nationhood. Harry Paton takes stock of the dish’s elevated status in Vietnam
The clock has barely struck 6.30am and Hanoi’s Old Quarter is already a rowdy hive of activity. Things are especially lively at Pho Gia Truyen on the city’s Bat Dan Street, where a mob is forming around a stern-looking matron who is taking orders and shouting instructions from behind a giant steaming cauldron.
Illuminated by a couple of naked light bulbs that cast a sickly pallor on the bare white walls and utilitarian metal tables, the venue is not much to look at. But it’s not the décor or the charming service that are drawing in the breakfast crowds. Rather, it’s the perfectly rendered bowls of beef noodle soup, regarded by many as among the finest in the city.
As the caretaker of the cauldron shares barked exchanges with the waiting hordes, one silent accomplice fills bowls with springy rice noodles and chopped scallions while another carves strips of ruby red beef from hulking slabs of brisket suspended from hooks behind the counter. Behind them, diners slurp their soup in reverential silence while others consume their bowls perched on their motorbikes outside.
People from Hanoi guard their traditions fiercely. Therefore, it is no surprise that pho remains so integral to the morning ritual in the Vietnamese capital, even as the 1,000-year-old city continues to evolve to meet the changing requirements of the Starbucks generation.
“Pho represents many things to Vietnamese people,” says author Andrea Nguyen, who releases a book, The Pho Cookbook, devoted to the dish early next year. “It’s food, but it also represents the resourcefulness of local cooks who took beef scraps left by the French colonials and turned it into something that was delicious and accessible to everyone.
There are Chinese influences in the spice seasonings and noodles. However, in totality, pho is purely Vietnamese. It is an amalgam of ideas and it is also customizable to each diner’s needs. The dish is the perfect metaphor for the Vietnamese quest for self-determination.”
Certainly, the trials faced by Vietnam during its tumultuous 20th century played a major part in the intertwining of pho with the national psyche. Originating in the French colonial period, it became a symbol of nationhood during times of war, privation and national reconciliation. So synonymous is it with Vietnam, it surprises many that pho is a relative infant in historical terms.
The roots of the dish can be traced to just outside Hanoi in the province of Nam Dinh. Yet while the rural villages in the Red River Delta are believed to be the geographical cradle of pho, few would dispute that its spiritual home is Hanoi itself.
It was in the capital that the intersection of several historical and cultural factors led to the popularization of the dish. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the definitive origins of the dish, experts agree that French influence played a major role in its evolution. In fact, it has been said that pho was an adaptation of the French pot au feu (beef stew).
You won’t find many proud Hanoians who buy into that theory. However, there’s little doubt that demand for beef from hungry French colonialists led to a surplus of beef bones, which were then used to deepen and perfect the flavor of the Nam Dinh broth.
From there, all that was needed to create the template for today’s classic Hanoi pho was for perfectionist vendors to tinker judiciously with the recipe. The slow-cooked broth was enhanced by additions like beef bones, flank steak oxtails, charred onion and ginger, and spices including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom and coriander.
Known among other Vietnamese for their lack of ostentation, Hanoians limited their garnishes to some fresh chilli slices and a few herbs — something that continues, largely unaffected by the passing of time and the invention of innumerable tasty condiments, to this day.
That’s not to say that the seemingly steadfast dish has not undergone the odd ruction over the past century. Food shortages during times of privation led to stringent government rationing and some pretty terrible bowls of pho. “To designate something that was dirty, one would say ‘It’s disgusting, like the state pho’,” recalls Nguyen.
The partition of Vietnam in 1954 was also a divisive moment in more ways than one. Southern chefs and (less forgivably, at least to Hanoians) northerners who headed south started sweetening their broth and accessorizing it with extra herbs, as well as other additions like hoisin and chilli sauce.
Other minor adjustments have been made down the years. Diners can now choose from a range of beef cuts — the most popular being rare beef (tai), flank (nam) and brisket (gau) — while chicken pho (pho ga) is a popular alternative to the classic beef broth. By and large, however, pho has eschewed the radical changes that have swept through Vietnam over the last 100-years or so.
Classic photographs of Hanoi from the 1930s show a very different city from the modern metropolis of today. Bicycle-riding locals and graceful ladies dressed in ao dai (Vietnam’s female national dress) and conical hats weave their way through quiet, tree-lined streets, making way ever so occasionally for a classic car. Sepia-tinted frames of roaming pho vendors carrying mobile kitchens on bamboo poles on their shoulders, however, provide a solid link between the capital of old and the still pho-obsessed city of today.
“Hanoians love their pho,” comments Mark Lowerson, who runs Hanoi Street Food Tours. “It is also the go-to comfort food. There are vendors serving pho at all times. If nobody’s going to cook for you, or you can’t decide what to cook for yourself, can’t decide where or what to go out for — it’s simple, you just go and eat pho. It’ll always fill the gap and be satisfying.”
Although some young chefs in Vietnam are dipping their toes into experimental waters — think brown rice noodles instead of white vermicelli — the onus on simplicity remains in Hanoi. “Pho is a northern dish, and Hanoians like to stay true to the traditional flavors,” explains Tracey Lister, a Hanoi-based chef and author of the book Vietnamese Street Food. “It all hinges on the quality of the broth. Southerners have adapted the dish to suit their palates. But adding hoisin sauce, basil and bean shoots muddies the flavours in my opinion.”
Although the city’s best pho venues keep their secrets closely guarded, experts mostly agree on the basic elements of a great bowl of Hanoi-style pho. The broth should be clear and fragrant, with a thin layer of oil on top to give it a “silky” feel, and it should be simmered to perfection rather than boiled into submission. Fresh noodles should be used within three hours lest they become sticky and sour. Accompaniments, meanwhile, should be limited to lime, fresh chilli and perhaps some garlic vinegar. “Hanoi food is pure and elegant,” explains Andrea. “People misunderstand this as bland and simple. It’s not. [Hanoian diners] enjoy the nuances in a delicate manner. People need to respect that, not put it down.”
Back at Pho Gia Truyen, the morning crowd has long since thinned out. The once mighty slabs of meat hanging above the counter have been reduced to tiny hunks, and the indomitable boss lady is showing signs of weariness. Even still, the few remaining stragglers spoon down their soup with abandon. The rest of Hanoi might already be at work, but there’s no wrong time to sample Vietnam’s beefy breakfast of champions.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Smile magazine.