Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pho Vietnam specialty

The Boston Omni Parker Hotel distributes to their guests a brochure commemorating the famous people who had either stayed or worked at the hotel. Among the notable people of the 20th Century who had passed through its door was a young Vietnamese whose later life would not only shape the destiny of his homeland but also significantly impact the history of the United States. His name was Nguyen Tat Thanh, better known as Ho Chi Minh. The young Thanh worked as a pastry assistant at this hotel, in the early 1910's.
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It is unlikely that Nguyen Tat Thanh had tasted pho before he left Vietnam because that national dish had not been widely known at the time. And even if he had heard of it, Thanh, who was utterly poor most of his life, would not have been able to afford it.

Pho: A new Vietnamese specialty

Unlike the "banh day" and "banh chung", dating back to the legendary origin of the Viet people, some 4,000 years ago, and still popular during the Tet season, pho came into being only at the start of the 20th century.

It is perhaps appropriate, as we approach the millennium of Hanoi and the centennial of pho, to retrace the origins where this national dish came from. Two schools of thoughts have emerged, both with influence from outside Vietnam: China or France. Both theories, incidentally, are based on the pronunciation of the word pho.

Nguyen Tung, an anthropologist based in Paris who has researched Vietnamese food in all three regions, agreed with Georges Dumoutier, an earlier writer, that pho did not exist in 1907. (1)

Tung went on to suggest that pho derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of "fun" (noodle), and thus the source of pho probably came from the Chinese refugees flowing into Vietnam in the late 19th Century and bringing with them a number of dishes which later were adopted by the Vietnamese: hu tieu, hoanh thanh, lap xuong, xa xiu, xi dau, pha lau, lau, ta pin lu, etc… (2)

R.W. Apple, Jr., a veteran New York Times journalist, having covered Vietnam during the war, and now elevated to the enviable position of resident-gourmet, advanced an alternate theory that pho came from the French beef-based comfort food, Pot au feu, brought to Vietnam, also in the late 19th Century, by the French colonial forces. (3)

To test this second theory, and no doubt to the chagrin of my dietician, I sampled a pot au feu at in Paris on the last day of 2004. It's a huge dish, made with four types of meat and four types of vegetables, cooked in a broth for a long time. The dish I tasted contained ox tail, beef tongue, beef rib, and an end of a femur with plenty of marrow inside; along with cabbage, potato, carrot, leeks, and turnip. The portion would feed three people.

I'm still debating which theory comes closer to the truth. Each source lacks one of the key components of pho: Chinese noodle soup does not emphasize the quality of the broth while the pot au feu , with good broth, comes with vegetables rather than noodle. Can it be that the Vietnamese, once again, borrow something from each to create something new, organically Viet? I'd like to hear from you, readers, on what you think of the origin of pho.

At any rate, pho took off like a wildfire, and quickly became the national dish for all seasons.

Half a century ago, Nguyen Tuan (1910-1987), the famed writer and a gourmet, penned these words:

"Morning, noon, afternoon, evening, late night, anytime is a good time for a bowl of pho. During the day, having an additional bowl of pho is like brewing a second pot of tea when the company is enjoyable; almost nobody would turn down an invitation to a pho shop. And the beauty of it is that pho makes it possible for a poor man to treat his friends without breaking the bank." (4)

It is now possible to find pho, the essence and symbol of Vietnamese cooking, on every habitable continent. From the tiny stalls in Hanoi, the cradle of pho, to the shopping malls in Orange County, to the Left Bank in Paris, one can now inhale the fragrant and distinctive flavor of "pho". And it is no longer true that only Vietnamese eat pho, or that pho is just breakfast food; it has now gained near universal acceptance, at any time of day or night.

Our beloved pho is Vietnamese to the core. Assuming that both the Chinese and French influences had something to do with the genesis of pho at the start of the last century, our ancestors synthesized, once again, the disparate strands that came across our land, added our Viet sense of balance with the various herbs and spices, and made something nutritious, easy to eat, and elegant at the same time. That story, in a nutshell, is also the history of Vietnam for over 4,000 years.

"Pho" reflects the migration of Vietnamese in the 20th century

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A famous pho restaurant on Ly Quoc Su Street, Hanoi.

On a smaller scale, the propagation of pho across the globe also reflects quite accurately the history of our homeland in the 20th Century.

If Georges Dumoutier and Prof. Nguyen Tung are correct, then we owe the French a recognition for having inspired the creation of pho. In return, we Vietnamese more than paid back this debt, in full and with plenty of interest.

It is likely that pho came into being around 1910-1912, early enough in the new century, and just in time before the first forced émigrés from Vietnam arrived in France to help the "mother country" repulse the German invasion during World War I. They were conscripts; many were sacrificed throughout the bloody front.

I haven't been able to find out how many of our Viet ancestors fought on, and gave their lives for, the French side during the First World War. But in March 2005 Thanh Nien related the story of Mr. Hue, one of the "linh tho" of the time and a survivor of the war, who resettled first in Lyon, got married, then moved to Lebanon, another French territory, in search of opportunity, and eventually prospered with two well established restaurants in Beyrouth.

It was also about this time that young Ho Chi Minh arrived in the United States where apparently he stayed for a few years. There was no doubt that he did the menial work to support himself, while learning English and absorbing the American culture. He acquired an affinity with the blacks in New York, Harlem in particular, and when he declared independence for Vietnam on September 2, 1945 in Hanoi, Ho quoted verbatim the preamble of the American Declaration of Independence.

Still it was unlikely that this pioneer generation of emigrants would have known pho well enough, if at all, to plant it in France or anywhere else.

By the Second World War, many more Vietnamese were conscripted again and sent to fight on behalf of France. This time, the number was larger and the theater more widespread since France was occupied and De Gaulle himself took refuge in England.

At the end of WW II, many of the surviving Vietnamese soldiers received French citizenship and were allowed to resettle in France or in another French colony. It was this second generation of expatriates that exported pho to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and even Micronesia. In the 1950's and 60's, it was not uncommon to find Vietnamese restaurants in Cote d'Ivoire or Senegal, Pondichery or New Caledonia.

The next major movement of the Viet people was internal. Following the Geneva Agreement in 1954 that temporarily divided the country into two zones, hundreds of thousands fled from the North to the South, and a smaller number in the opposite direction. These refugees from the North introduced their compatriots in the South to the taste of pho; the South in turn modified pho with bean sprout, basil, ngo gai, and other herbs that are plentiful in the warmer climate.

The South embraced pho, albeit on its own terms, to such a degree that today, the "southern style" of pho is the predominant version: outside of North Vietnam, I have encountered only one restaurant serving pho in the original, Hanoi style, i.e. without bean sprout and basil. That distinctive shop is Thap Rua, on Larkin Street in San Francisco.

Then thirty years ago, it was our turn, baby boomers and Generation X, to leave home. Over the years since 1975, roughly two millions of us left Vietnam. By and large we achieved what we set out for, and then some.

Today, Vietnam itself has a population of 8 million while the diaspora counts almost 4 million, or about five percent of the homeland. More than half of the overseas Vietnamese live in the United States, and almost half of this population choose California as their home. By comparison, China, our neighbor to the North, with a population of 1.3 billion, is connected to a Chinese diaspora estimated at 85 – 90 million. Depending on how one looks at this glass of water: overseas Chinese make up less than ten percent of the homeland population, or the Chinese diaspora is larger than Vietnam itself.

In this context, pho has reached every corner of the Earth as three million Vietnamese sought refuge in dozens of countries, from Denmark to New Zealand, from Japan to Israel. Few other books or tales can tell the story of our migrating people more eloquently. Dang Nhat Minh, the noted film director from Hanoi, has suggested that Vietnam should emphasize food as our brand name, and first among all other dishes, is "pho", our national brand par excellence.

In this new century, as it is welcomed all over the world, pho is an accepted term in both English and French, just like spaghetti or croissant, dim sum or sashimi, this common dish is now truly Vietnam's gift to the world. And as with any gifts, the most useful ones are often the small, deceptively simple, yet used day in and day out, to the point of becoming an integral part of a person's life. Pho is such a gift to the world.

Photos and text by Vu Duc Vuong

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