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Monday, September 12, 2005

A LOOK AT VIETNAMESE CULTURE THROUGH A BOWL OF SOUP

For Vietnamese, eating pho soup is a breakfast ritual, a soothing midnight snack or any meal in between. For non-Vietnamese, pho (roughly pronounced “fuh”) is often the first introduction to Vietnamese culture and cuisine, with pho shops now found in overseas Vietnamese communities throughout the world. Largely thought to have originated in northern Vietnam, pho blends all of the elements that make Vietnamese cuisine one of the world’s best: spice, fresh herbs, rice noodles and the ubiquitous fermented fish sauce, nuoc mam.

The origins of the word itself are disputed. The French claim that pho originated from the feu, which means fire in French. Some Vietnamese scholars link pho to the word phan, which means rice paste in Cantonese. It is believed that Vietnamese may have taken the southern Chinese dish “nguu nhuc phan” (rice paste with beef) hawked by Chinese merchants in the first part of the 20th century and transformed it into pho. The Vietnamese word for rice noodle, bun or banh pho, also is thought to have originated from phan. Today the word phan in Vietnamese has the rather unappetizing meanings “chalk” and “facial powder,” but the word pho lives on.

Even in the pho-crazy cities of Vietnam, where soup stalls can be found on every corner, few cooks make pho in the strict traditional way. To do so, beef bones must be simmered with water, ginger, star anise, cinnamon sticks, nuoc mam and vegetables for at least 2 hours. Thin slices of beef (rare or well done) are added to the steaming broth, accompanied by rice noodles ideally made from the finest fragrant rice. Much to the dismay of traditionalists, MSG has become a regular ingredient of pho broth, with soup vendors using it to make their broth stretch a little further.

Sitting down to eat pho, whether at a tiny sidewalk stall or a packed restaurant, is a ritual in itself, with lots of slurping practically mandatory. Northerners tend to eat a simpler version of the soup, whereas pho connoisseurs in the South embellish their bowl with mint, basil, bean sprouts, and chopped red chilies topped by a fresh squeeze of lime. More spice and tang are added by dipping the juicy morsels of beef in hoisen sauce or chili pepper paste. A meal of pho isn’t complete without finishing with a steaming pot of tea or even a sweet glass of ca phe sua da (coffee with condensed milk and ice).

Pho is so affordable that you’ll find yourself slurping elbow to elbow with cyclo drivers, students, business people and street vendors cradling their conical hats in their laps. Pho comes in all sizes, even pho “xe lua,” or train size, for the big eater. Most city-dwellers have their favorite pho stalls, to which they are fiercely loyal. For non-purists, there is chicken pho (pho ga) and (heaven forbid!) a vegetarian version of pho.

Few Asian dishes have been as widely extolled as pho soup. Ask fans of pho about its appeal, and they will say it is supremely satisfying and filling, yet at the same time light and energizing. It’s suitable fare for any meal.

Some people are born with a knack for making pho, while others can only master it through years of patience and enthusiastic trial and error. But since it takes a whole day to go shop for all the proper ingredients and to cook the broth, many people in Vietnam prefer to go to a pho house every now and then and treat the outing as a special occasion for the whole family.

Some people act as though the experience is more addiction than nutrition, and you can find them in the pho house at all hours of the day and night, every day of the week.

Bac Hoai Tran is a noted linguist and scholar, and the author of Conversational Vietnamese.

1 comment:

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