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Saturday, September 29, 2007

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

the hungry tiger

My second attempt at pho was a big success, flavorful and perfectly pho-like and inspiring widespread sentiments of health and wellbeing. It wasn't difficult, but given the substantial difference between this batch and the last one, some attention to detail is obviously called for. The write-up below is thus annotated especially to help highlight potential pitfalls.

In preparation, not on the day when we actually put the pho together, I made the broth. First I made a nice pot of vegetable stock according to my usual method. Then I strained it and put it back into the pot along with a tablespoon of soy sauce; a 1" piece of fresh ginger that I had roasted under the broiler for about 3 minutes, until it started to char; 5 fat cloves of garlic, roughly chopped; 2 cinnamon sticks; 3 star anise pods; about a teaspoon of cloves; and an onion cut in quarters. I simmered this for about 25 minutes and then strained it. I added the juice of one Meyer lemon, because I had some around that I had brought home from Berkeley. Important note: At this point, the broth should taste too strong -- after all, its flavor is going to be diluted by all the other things that go into the bowl.

My shopping list for ingredients that went into the pho:

Thin rice noodles
Seasoned crispy tofu
Fresh basil
Big crunchy bean sprouts
LimePlum sauce
Chili-garlic sauce

The peanuts and cilantro (chopped), basil (torn), and bean sprouts go on top of the soup right before it is served, along with a good squeeze of lime juice. Plum sauce and chili sauce are added at the table. The rest goes into the bowl before you pour the hot broth over. I think it is nice to lightly steam the broccoli and carrots, and then to toss the onion and tofu into the steamer for just a few seconds to warm them through. The heat of the broth will cook the cabbage plenty.
Important note #2: One of the things that was sub-optimal last time was my failure to arrange things so that the assembled pho was sufficiently hot. The noodles get cooked by a soak in hot water, and are then rinsed in cold water--I think it is nice to use lukewarm water at the end, so there is nothing too cold to make your soup tepid. Similarly, it makes sense to steam the vegetables only after you have already brought your broth up to a simmer, so they don't get cold while you do other things.

About streamlining the process: Because we went out directly after dinner last night, the kitchen is now a wreck. Making pho is not a tidy and contained process, though the cleanup is actually fairly un-onerous: there's nothing sticky or baked-on or otherwise tenacious. And though the ingredient list is long, and you have to interact with a lot of different parts to the recipe, it's all pretty straightforward, as long as you take care of the broth ahead of time. In fact, you can do almost everything ahead of time, which would make this a fine party food, and also allow you to avoid the kitchen explosion effect. I think I will try to enact this strategy more fully the next time I make it.

Fine for all

Generally, if a restaurant’s name starts with "pho," that’s what you ought to have: pho, the beef-noodle soup of Hanoi. Reputedly named after the French pot-au-feu, the soup moved to Saigon with Catholic refugees in 1954 and then came to America with the first wave of South Vietnamese refugees in 1975.

Author Calvin Trillin had a wonderful vision of a ’50s white GI on liberty, nervously following an African-American buddy past the grimy entrance to a certain barbecue joint in Kansas City. The GI is rewarded for his liberal attitude when (hesitantly, dubiously — with common sense overcome by common decency) he reaches the counter of the greatest restaurant in the world. That’s sort of what happened to me when I hesitantly followed my convictions about ethnic dining up the steps into that first tiny storefront on Stuart Street and looked over a menu consisting entirely of soups with various choices of spare parts: tendon, tripe, flank. I remember giving up on choosing and deciding to go for the giant combination, then as now spelled "pho dac biet" with a forest of accents on almost every vowel. It probably cost $3.50. The waiter smiled at me, and I wondered how, if it was really horrible, I would manage to eat the whole thing so as not to insult anyone. I imagined something heavy and scented with tripe; maybe I could get it down with enough hot sauce. Then they brought out this very large bowl of soup, with a whole salad of bean sprouts and basil on another plate. Well, I thought, I can always eat the salad. The soup was full of meat and noodles, with bits of green cilantro and scallions floating on top.

With the first taste, I had a realization like that of Trillin’s GI: I was sitting before the best bowl of soup I’d ever had. I remember I ate the entire bowl and all the salad mixed in, but forgot to add the lime or hot sauce until the end. I’ve since had pho in Dorchester, Revere, Brighton, and Toronto — and it’s never let me down.

Sure enough, the pho dac biet ($5.25; extra-large, $5.75; small, $4.75) at Pho Vietnam is true to the breed, but has its own character. The broth is suitably light, but puts the beef forward, with the spice (star anise) at a lower pitch. The dreaded tripe is light, feathery white stuff, cut into long strips, with more of a crunchy texture than any kind of flavor. A thin slice of rare steak tastes like roast beef. Slices of well-done brisket have an earthier beef flavor with a little fat. Slices of cooked beef round have a leaner and blander meatiness. The off-putting item for some is "tendon," gristle cut thin enough to crunch. Again, this provides texture; it’s the gelatinous quality the best Anglo-American beef soups dissolve into the stock. Pho has a lighter body, and you get all the gelatin in a few bites. Some very fancy chefs have done platters like a rare duck breast with a confit duck leg — two contrasting treatments of the same animal. A good pho does the same thing, but with five flavors of beef at one-fifth the price! And then there are the aromatics. The broth features different tastes depending on where you put in the spoon. One spoonful has cilantro, another scallion, a third the long shreds of white onion. Pho Vietnam was out of anise basil my day, but usually has it. That salad stuff on the side is bean sprouts for crunch in selected spoonfuls. There is an eighth of a lime to add zip, hot sauce and hoisin for another kind of zip, and a single, thin green chili pepper that I recommend avoiding. (Technique for eating Asian noodle soups: chopsticks in your best hand, used to load solids into the spoon in your other hand. To add hoisin, make a little puddle on the plate and dip your chopsticks in it. That flavors your next spoonful of noodles.)

I try to check one variant soup at each stop. Here I can report that the crabmeat with vermicelli soup ($4.75/5.50) is quite good, a lighter broth than the pho, drawing accents from the real crabmeat dumplings and the phony-crab chunks. This is quite a spicy soup, by the way.
Pho Vietnam also has non-soup, and some very fine non-soup. Some people might not order pho, opting instead for the amazing grilled squid with spicy lemongrass. These squid pieces are diamond-cut to show "dragon scales," with a spicy marinade and a strong taste of the fire, and yet are still tender enough to chew. A lot of famous Asian-fusion chefs within a few blocks of Pho Vietnam would trade significant parts of their anatomy to be able to make squid like this. The dip, a red-pepper sauce with seeds, is so hot that the layer of ground black pepper on top seems to cool off your mouth. I also liked "Beef wrapped in Hawalian ‘Lot Leaf’" ($4.95) even though I have no idea where Hawal is. The sour leaf makes a nice contrast in little rolls of beef with a dip of sweet-sour fish sauce. The Vietnamese egg roll ($3.75) is genuinely down to cigar diameter, which means super crunch and some grease.

The menu seems to consist mostly of "Chef’s Suggestions" and "Chef’s Specialties of Vietnam Rural." Of the former, curry shrimp ($8.50) is not what you might expect, but rather a Thai-style red curry that burns awfully well. Of the latter, "My Thuan Salmon" ($8.95) is a nice enough filet, with real jasmine rice and a lovely sauté of Chinese broccoli and spinach. "Seafood Hot Pot" ($14.95/18.95) is one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, and therefore even the small one is too large to eat. The server brings out a canned-heat burner warming a lemony broth with some seafood, straw mushrooms, and corn in it, and then two more plates of ingredients to put in. If two or three of you decide to eat this, remember to save room for the broth at the end, by which time it is amazingly good. But you will have to go easy on the rice noodles, the zucchini, the broccoli, the two kinds of fish loaf, and maybe even the shrimp. That leaves you about two pots full of the really good stuff: squid sticks, shrimp, Chinese broccoli, cilantro — okay, maybe just a little rice vermicelli. The only problem with this dish is that the canned-heat fumes are unpleasant, and it takes a little while to get up enough heat to boil the broth. I would suggest the electric hot plates or propane units used in the better Korean restaurants.

If you’re not into Asian desserts, you can still persuade the staff to give you a delicious avocado shake or simple fruit in syrup. If you like Asian desserts, you’ll dig right in to the seaweed-mung-bean-shaved-ice parfaits. Send me your review as a letter to the editor. I agree in advance to believe you and not to double-check.

Pho Vietnam has adequate service and essentially no décor or atmosphere at all. Most of you would never walk in if you didn’t read this column — and that’s why you do.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Vietnamese Pho Chain Takes on U.S. Competition

by Michael Sullivan -Morning Edition,

March 20, 2007 · As KFC and other American fast-food chains expand their presence in Vietnam, a local entrepreneur is trying to blunt the Americans' growth by beating them at their own game. In just four years, Ly Qui Trung, founder of Pho24, has built up his noodle chain to more than 50 stores in Vietnam and overseas.

Pho, Vietnam's signature dish, is eaten mostly on the street, but the restaurant chain has found a way to attract customers to come inside.

"The quality is good, especially the noodles," says accountant Dao Thuy Vy, a customer at one of the restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. "They're different than normal noodles. The flavor is better, and it's safer than eating on the street."

A bowl of pho on the street costs less than a dollar. At Pho24, it's twice that. But the customers don't seem to mind.

"It's not just the food," says Nguyen Nhan Bao, another customer. "It's the staff, the service. It's all very good, very professional. And it's fast."

Trung, the chain's founder, says that initially, Pho24 catered mostly to foreigners and wealthier Vietnamese. "But our vision is for the whole population of Vietnam," he says, "and at the moment, over 50 percent of our customers are locals."

Part of his vision is to try to convince young Vietnamese that their own fast food is as good as — or better than — that offered by the multinational chains. KFC and Pizza Hut are already here. But McDonald's hasn't arrived yet. Trung wants to grab a big chunk of the market before the 800-pound gorilla crashes the party.

"I just don't want to see it happen that all young people go to McDonald's or KFC all the time," he says. [It's] already happened in many Asian countries. So we have to do very well in advance and make the young generation get used to the traditional dish."

Trung says his company's rapid growth mirrors that of Vietnam's economy in general. Just a few years ago, most Vietnamese couldn't afford a bowl of Pho24, he says, but that's changing.
Late last year, one of Vietnam's biggest venture capital firms bought a 30 percent stake in Pho24. Trung says he'll use that money to fund his expansion. Several shops are already open in Indonesia and the Philippines. A half-dozen more are set to open in Australia and South Korea. And by year end, Trung says he expects to have his first foothold in the United States with a restaurant in California.

And he's pretty much figured out how to market it to the American consumer: "It's very clean, very quick, very nutritious. Less salt, fat, sugar, matches all the requirements of modern life. So you don't get fat with pho."

Souping up Asian cuisine

By Amy Spector (June 9, 2003) - The aromatic lure of pho, the noodle soup staple of Vietnamese cuisine, has enticed fans of the fragrant dish to Southeast Asian communities across the United States since Vietnamese emigrants flocked to this country three decades ago.
Now pho, which is pronounced fuh, has become a savory weapon in the restaurant noodle wars raging in metropolitan markets nationwide.

Expansion-minded noodle concepts like Brinker's Big Bowl; El Cerrito, Calif.-based Zao Noodle Bar; Chin's Asia Fresh of Minneapolis; and Doc Chey's Noodle House, based in Atlanta, all serve their take on the dish. Those restaurants are broadening the awareness of pho already created by regional chains like Pho Pasteur, based in Boston, and international chain Pho Hoa, operated and franchised by San Jose, Calif.,-based Aureflam Corp.

That is welcome news for Mai Pham, the chef-owner of Lemon Grass restaurant in Sacramento, Calif. and champion of the dish who jokingly refers to herself as "The Pho Lady." Through her articles and cookbooks, "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table" and "The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking," Pham has spread the word and sparked interest in the dish that, like French author Marcel Proust's tisane-infused madeleine, triggers happy memories for Pham of her Saigon childhood.

On the surface, pho appears to be a simple combination of rice noodles, broth and sliced or pulled meat. But as with any culinaryclassic, the devil is in the details, and the dish's quality changes dramatically depending on the flavor and clarity of the traditionally beef-based broth, the cut of the noodles, the preparation of the meat additions and the freshness of the accompanying garnishes.

Eating pho can be a two-handed challenge for the initiate, involving both chopsticks to grab the noodles and a spoon to scoop the broth. Pho garnishes typically are fresh basil, fresh chili, lime wedges or kiffer lime leaves and bean sprouts, presented at the table and added to a bowl of pho according to each person's taste. Additional condiments commonly found on the South Vietnamese pho restaurant table are Vietnamese fish sauce, or nuoc nam; hoisin sauce; and sriracha or "rooster" chili sauce.

According to research and oral histories Pham has recorded in Vietnam, pho first gained popularity in Hanoi in North Vietnam and was brought to Saigon when northerners migrated south in the 1950s. But the dish traces its origins to China and France, she believes. Some pho historians think France's 100-year occupation of Vietnam led to the dish's name, a corruption of the final word in the French hot-pot dish, pot au feu, although the word "fun" also describes some Chinese noodles. The flavors, Pham says, bear a strong resemblance to a Chinese beef stew with noodles, infused with anise and ginger.

Pho dac biet, which means "house special pho," often heads the list of numerous pho choices at Vietnamese restaurants. It might include beef brisket, tendon, tripe and sliced rare beef. Pho also can be made with beef meatballs, called bo vien.

Slanted Door owner Charles Phan, whose Chinese family moved to South Vietnam before relocating to the United States, traveled to Hanoi in the late 1990s to study pho. "In the North the whole focus is on the broth," he says, and the dish comes with just sliced rare beef because North Vietnamese "don't add the beef tripe and tendon," he adds. In the South "they even add eggs. That's very typical for Vietnamese street vendors," he explains, because eggs are not perishable and increase the selling price.

"The original idea for my restaurant was to open a noodle shop," Phan says of his lauded San Francisco site in the Mission District, which has evolved into a haven for sophisticated Vietnamese cuisine. He currently is renovating that Slanted Door venue, operating from a 130-seat location on Brannon Street downtown, while negotiating to re-create the original site as the intended street food and noodle shop concept. Pho "is probably the most popular item at lunch," he notes, when he has served both chicken and beef variations.

For the beef pho, Phan reserves the beef fat skimmed from his stock, made from neck and shank bones, oxtail and brisket, and tops each bowl with a warmed ladleful. "Fat changes the depth of the flavor," he claims. His prefers Long Island red-chicken carcasses for his chicken stock because those chickens "take about six months to grow" and provide better meat texture and broth flavor, Phan feels. A local noodle shop makes fresh rice noodles to his specification. Since moving from the vegetarian-heavy Mission District, Phan says, his beef pho sales are gaining on the top-selling chicken version.

At Lemon Grass Pham offers pho as a special for $8.95 on Mondays and Tuesdays. "I tried to put it on the menu, but people didn't feel comfortable slurping [noodles] over a business lunch," she says. "But that may change."

She recalls a sight witnessed three years ago that convinced her of pho's international appeal. "In San Jose there's a Taco Bell next to a pho shop," she recalls. "The Taco Bell was not busy, but the pho shop was mobbed with Mexican families."

Reaching out to that Hispanic clientele and other non-Vietnamese audiences, flexible pho shops have begun serving seafood variations of the dish.

Although the South Vietnamese culinary repertoire includes a seafood noodle soup, hu tieu, that dish incorporates a different type of noodle. Aureflam Corp. operations manager Michael Nguyen, who overseas 90 restaurants that trade as Pho Hoa and Pho Cong Ly in 10 countries and 12 U.S. states, says his restaurants serve a salmon and shrimp pho prepared with a spicy seafood broth flavored with ginger and lemon grass.

Aureflam, started by Nguyen's brother, Binh Nguyen, in 1983, will expand to Florida in June at a site across from Disney World, Nguyen says. To illustrate the widespread awareness of pho, he recounts a recent experience at the company's restaurant near the Berkeley campus of the University of California. A white college student ordered pho, requesting rare beef served on the side to "cook" in the broth, something Nguyen had seen only Asian clients requesting, he says. "I asked her how she knew to order pho like that. And she told me, 'I've been eating pho since I was 15.' I was surprised," he notes.

In Southern California, where the largest Vietnamese community in the United States resides, pho purists still may prefer to trek to neighborhoods like "Little Saigon" in Westminster. But the dish's popularity has bubbled over into mainstream restaurants like Buddha's Belly, located on a trendy stretch of Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. That restaurant's rendition, "Vietnamese Pho Ga," priced at $8.75, includes tofu cubes and radicchio, a reflection of menu consultant Hisashi Yoshiara's experience with Japanese and Italian cuisines, says Buddha's Beily co-owner Jonathan Chu.

Chu's restaurant bases its pho broth on an aromatic chicken stock, Chu says, flavored with traditional spices as well as fried onion and cilantro. Buddha's Belly uses dried rice vermicelli for its noodles.

"The pho here, as in Vietnam, is a little bland," he says, because diners customize the soup to their tastes. Chu thought pho's mild quality was the reason why "women tend to order pho more than men." Buddha's Belly offers eight types of noodle soups, the most popular of which is "spicy tom yam koong Thai ramen."

Vietnamese chef Duy Van Pham of Flow restaurant at The Luna Hotel in Denver says he does not have the leeway to serve pho at the hotel's "cutting-edge contemporary French" restaurant. But "it influenced my food. The most dominant flavor in pho is the star anise. All the flavorings that would be in pho I put in veal stock and reduce it down," he says, to use in sauces for beef dishes.

And when Duy Van Pham needs a comforting meal at the end of his shift, "my dad makes pho for me at home," he enthuses. Michael Nguyen notes that pho is the perfect late-night food because "the rice noodles are easy to digest. It's very healthy."

Author and journalist Linda Burum, who is an authority on ethnic restaurants in Southern California, says she, too, has seen pho turn into a popular late-night dish in the region, particularly in the Koreatown section just west of downtown Los Angeles, where many pho restaurants have sprung up.

Richard Chey, creator of three-unit Doc Chey's Noodle House, put "two of my favorite dishes on the menu, pho and bun," the latter of which is a vermicelli that he serves as a cold noodle dish. He jazzes up his pho with carrots and tangy yu choy sum because, he explains, his mostly white clientele expects more than noodles and beef in their soup. Chey also uses a rice noodle slightly thicker than vermicelli, which holds its texture better, he feels. Doc Chey's "Vietnamese beef soup," pho, is one of six noodle soups on his menu and sells for $6.

Mai Pham helped Adam Willner draft his menu for Zao Noodle Bar, which trades at six locations in Northern California and Seattle. Vice president of operations Matthew Baizer says the two pho options, vegetable and chicken, "are just behind our lemon grass coconut chicken soup and our simple chicken soup" in sales. "We've slanted the menu toward Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese dishes," he claims, with Vietnamese items accounting for "40 to 45 percent" of the list.
At Zao Noodle Bar each order comes with a "table salad" of Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime and Thai chili that servers explain to customers who are new to pho, Baizer says. But as for the traditional two-handed eating process, "people feel a little awkward," he says, so his staff lets customers figure that out for themselves.
Every morning, thousands of Hanoi citizens start the day with a steaming bowl of 'pho' - the street food at the heart of Vietnam's life and culinary renaissance after years of war and famine. Is this the best soup in the world? Alex RentonSunday May 16, 2004The Observer

At 7am on a cold morning in Hanoi's old town it's not hard to find one of the world's great breakfasts. You simply keep an eye open for a doorway full of steam and a cluster of people on ankle-high stools. These are sure signs of a good place for Hanoi's noodle soup - pho.
The aromatic fog that wafts like a banner from the soup cauldron and over the customers is the stall's advertisement. The pho vapours are, as one Vietnamese poet puts it, 'like the clouds of incense that make us quicken our steps and climb the mountain in order to arrive at the pagoda'.

You could bottle that incense and drink it. Under the base of meat or fish stock, there are whispers of liquorice, onion and cinnamon, smells with the promise of warmth and comfort. It is the smell of a national obsession. Pho is much more than just breakfast to the north Vietnamese: it is 'the soul of the nation', a 'contribution to human happiness' and an addiction 'worse than tobacco'. (It's also an enduring inspiration to Vietnamese writers.) Pho is a full-on sensual experience - when Vietnamese talk of pho they think of sex. 'We say that rice is a spouse, whereas pho is a lover,' says my friend Huong. When she was an adolescent, during Vietnam's famine years, pho was an unaffordable luxury.

I get up early for my first pho . Though every Hanoi resident has a favourite pho spot, the best advice is to stop at a stall with a large crowd round it. On this principle, by Dong Xuan market in the city's medieval merchant's district, I find Thao Van's portable restaurant. She has set it up on the steps of a shuttered shop, and around her are gathered a dozen customers, each of them sitting on a tiny plastic stool of the sort you might see in a kindergarten. Behind these people others queue patiently for their turn. Nearby are motor-scooters, hovering to deliver takeaways.

The centrepiece of Thao Van's soup stall is two huge, saucer-shaped wicker baskets. She carries this load through the narrow streets on a yoke across her shoulders before dawn every morning. In one basket bubbles the cauldron of stock, over a charcoal-fired stove. A smaller pot within the cauldron holds boiling water. This stove is said to give pho its name - the word is pronounced like feu , the French for fire, and may have come with the French colonialists from coffre-feu , a portable stove. Picnic gear like that is one of the very few good things the French brought to Vietnam. Another is great bread.

In Thao Van's other basket are the accessories, piles of chopped coriander, mint and spring onion; huge hanks of fresh rice noodles, white as marble. In bowls are slivers of beef, two types. There are slices from a hunk of the long-boiled shoulder that bolstered the stock. The other is little shavings of bloody fillet - the word for the raw and tender red beef is tai , which is the same word used rudely for Westerners. (Ordering yourself pho bo tai , raw beef noodle soup, at a street stall is a foolproof way of getting a laugh out of the locals.)

Thao Van squats between the two baskets with a little serving table in front of her. It holds the plastic bowls, china spoons ( pho is never eaten with a metal spoon), and the seasonings: lime chunks, chopped red chilli, ground pepper and a scary looking ketchup of chilli mixed with fermented fish sauce. With all her ingredients and cooking systems ergonomically arranged, stoves at her left elbow, bowls, noodles, meat and herbs to the right, she looks like a jet pilot in the cockpit. From this hot seat she serves up 100 bowls of noodles and broth before 9am, which seems to be about one every two minutes.

I sit on the steps to watch Thao Van in action. Next to me is Mai Hoay, an 81-year-old man busily sluicing his pho through a few black-stained teeth with the help of shots of a clear liquid he keeps in a Fanta bottle by his feet. This is a gullet-searing rice wine, and Mai Hoay is very generous with it. He explains that he enjoys Thao Van's noodle soup so much he has been coming here for 20 years and eating it three times a day. This gets lots of laughs from round the stall: the old man is Thao Van's father and he gets to eat her noodle soup free.

Thao Van is busy with the ambidextrous hand-jive that marks pho production. One arm grabs a fistful of noodles while the other finds a little sieve: the noodles are dunked in the smaller pan of boiling water for five seconds. Then the noodles slide into the bowl. One hand artfully arranges little bouquets of coriander, mint and chopped spring onion on top of the noodles: in Vietnam, even street soup is served to please the eye as well as the stomach. Next into the bowl are some slices of beef: I ask for some of the well-boiled and some of the raw, which the crowd thinks is greedy. And last of all, a great ladleful of the stock from the seething pot that is the real event.

Then the bowl is thrust at me with battered wooden chopsticks and a porcelain spoon.
Crouched on a stool, my pho moment has come. It's beautiful. The gentle greens, the pinks and rain-cloud greys in the bowl are the stuff of watercolours. The vapour curls around my face like Vick under a towel. I inhale. There's that same sweet, come-hither smell that drew us to Thao Van's stall from the top of the street. Those Christmas cake flavours again - cinnamon and ginger.

I try a sip of the clear soup. It is shockingly sweet at first - a fizzy drink gone flat in the sun. But then the depths and riches of the flavour come through - down to the oaky, beef-stock base. Much subtler and more complex than the alcohol-heavy guay tieow noodle soups of Thailand and southern China. I dig with my chopsticks and come up with a tangle of noodles, a sliver of the raw beef that has poached itself just enough in the stock to go pearl-coloured, a crunchy shoot of spring onion. It is very good indeed. For the next bite I shake in a bit of chopped chilli and a squeeze of lime to give some edge to the sweetness and very soon I am looking at the bottom of the bowl. Mai Hoay applauds - you're supposed to eat fast. In five minutes the noodles become waterlogged and lose their texture - and he offers me another teacup of rice wine to celebrate.

Trying to get to the secrets of this fabulous breakfast is harder than eating it. Thao Van is busy and just a touch hesitant to reveal the mysteries before the crowd. Cow bone and beef bone go into the stock, she tells me (there is some a debate on the difference between these), ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and star anise accounting for that liquorice smell. Each day when Thao Van gets home around lunchtime she starts boiling the following day's stock - it needs at least 14 hours to brew.

The only question that's clearly answered is about those dwarf-sized stools. Why are they so small? 'That's so we can run away from the police quickly.' Street pho is outlawed in modern Vietnam, which of course makes it all the more pleasurable. 'They're guerrilla restaurants,' says Chau, who is translating. 'We Vietnamese, you know, we're famous for these tactics - a small unit, highly mobile, makes an impact and then moves out fast.'

The portable restaurants are now only illegal because they breach street-tidiness rules. Previously the police hounded the street vendors because they were capitalists. All restaurants were banned, as was all private enterprise, after 1954, when Ho Chi Minh and the Communist party took over. It was not until the late Eighties when the communist leadership began doi moi , Vietnam's own process of perestroika , that restaurants were officially permitted again.
Illicit pho stalls survived, though the soup became a luxury, even when food shortages meant the stock might be made from no more than tiny river crabs, the garnish the ground up shells and legs. Huong remembers the first time she tasted pho . It was in 1981, during what people call 'the hungry time', when the wars and the communists' policy of collectivising the farms had devastated the food supply. Aged 16, Huong had been selected for a scholarship in the Soviet Union. At the time her diet was rice, fish sauce and a yellow starch, said to be a feed for pigs donated by countries in Eastern Europe. She weighed only 33 kilos. Huong's mother decided she needed fattening up before she went off to Russia - so she invested in pho .

'It must have cost her five dong. She was a teacher, so that would have been more than her daily wage. It was a delicious luxury, an extraordinary thing. You cannot understand how hungry we were. When I arrived in Leningrad I had a room near the kitchens. And my first morning, I smelt butter frying. It smelt like happiness.'

Chau, similarly, could rarely afford to eat at the pho stalls of his youth: 'You've just eaten more beef than I would see in six months,' he tells me after our pho breakfast. He remembers a day during the famine years that his mother got hold of two eggs. She boiled them, shelled them and mixed them up with fish sauce. Then she shared them among the nine people of the household. 'Everything I eat now - eggs, peanuts, sugar - is precious,' says Chau.

Embarrassingly, this talk makes me feel more hungry than guilty. So Chau and I walk through the mad buzz of commuting mopeds to another street in the old city for the third of this day's breakfasts. On Hang Buom, among shop windows full of the gleaming reds and golds of Vietnamese lacquerware, we find a cupboard-sized café famous for its banh cuon nong . These are little rice flour crêpes , served hot and stuffed with pork, mushrooms, onion and coriander. The banh cuon are beautiful things, pale like altar candles among the dark green herbs that come with them. Tiny yellow fried onion chips are scattered on top.

The stallholder is another multi-tasker, rolling the crêpes and their stuffing with one hand while using the other to coax new sheets of wet rice paper off a steamer with a long chopstick. I ask her if I can have some stag beetle testosterone on my banh cuon . This takes a little translating, but eventually a tiny glass vial is produced, and a single drop of clear, oily liquid, ca cuong , from the belostomatid beetle is deposited on my pork rolls. My head instantly fills with an intense smell, indistinguishable from nail varnish. Which may be what it is, but the flavours of the banh cuon are greatly enhanced, as though someone has turned up the volume.

This is enough. Chau and I go for coffee. We have been breakfasting for three hours. Good Vietnamese coffee is probably the best you can get, east of the Mediterranean. The French colonialists had a catastrophic time in Indochina, their principal legacy being nearly 50 years of famine and war. But Hanoi retains a few happy mementos: glorious boulevards, the notion of sautéing, artichokes, baguettes and great coffee.

Thus the Vietnamese for coffee is ca pho (rather as the street steak and frîtes stalls - which are excellent - are called bit tek , after 'beefsteak'). The burnt chocolatey roast of Vietnamese Arabica is delicious, a brain-joltingly strong brew. We drink it in the smallest coffee house I've ever seen - a place on the silk-vendors street, Hang Gai, as wide as its doors. It holds 18 people. Here, as Chau says, if one person smokes, everyone smokes. Everyone's also on a mobile phone, because it is now 9.30am and the Hanoi stock exchange has just opened. This is modern Vietnam.

The coffee brings me to another landmark of Vietnam's confused twentieth century, the Metropole Hotel. This was colonial Hanoi's first grand hotel, built just over a century ago. It was the clubhouse of the French administrators, whose indulgence and dissipation led Hanoi to be called the paradis des fonctionnaires - heaven for bureaucrats. Graham Greene stayed here to write The Quiet American (of course). After independence in 1954, the communists made the Metropole into the Reunification Hotel, the Government's guesthouse for VIPs: it was Jane Fonda's base in 1972, when she came to broadcast anti-war messages to the American troops. Now the long, green-shuttered building is again Hanoi's poshest hotel. It's also behind what may be a renaissance in traditional north Vietnamese cooking.

In the kitchens, I meet Nguyen Thi Kim Hai, head Vietnamese chef at the hotel. Madame Hai, as everyone calls her, started her career here in 1978, when the staples, even under communist nationalism, were still canard à l'orange and the like. Now she finds herself and her staff preparing banh cuon, nem spring rolls and, of course, pho . She helps me kindly through the process of making the classic Vietnamese spring rolls. It is not unlike being taught how to make your first roll-up.

I ask Madame Hai how it feels preparing Hanoi street food, the food of the poor, for the Metropole's guests. 'People laugh when they find out how much we charge for pho [$4.50 in the restaurant, perhaps 10 times what it would cost on the street] but I think they are also proud. And now we have many Vietnamese people who come here for cooking classes, and many restaurants in Hanoi have taken the idea, and serve street food themselves.'

But the Hanoi street also penetrates the grand French restaurant at the hotel, though with some twists. The banh cuon are filled with salmon roe and the pho is duck-stock with slivers of foie gras. This is all driven by Didier Corlou, the head chef at the Metropole, a big, round Breton with a fanatical love for Vietnamese food. ' Pho is the best soup in the world,' he states, without any sort of qualification. 'It's the most pure, the most satisfying...'

Didier is noisy and passionate about food, as you would expect, but his remarkable devotion to Vietnam and its cooking goes beyond normal chef's enthusiasms. It began in 1991. When the government gave up control of the hotel, he came here to reopen the Metropole's kitchens. He discovered a simple, pure style of cooking dependent on fresh ingredients, that seduced him. Subsequently he married a Vietnamese chef, Mai. She and her parents, he says, are the inspiration for his mission: to train a new generation of Vietnamese chefs, restore their culinary heritage and establish pho and other Vietnamese dishes among the great cuisines of the world.

'For me, everything comes from the street and from the family. There is no traditional gastronomy here. Such a thing is impossible after so much war and famine,' he says. His elevation of street food translates in his restaurants into some extraordinary, and usually successful, dishes: fried tempura shrimps with fresh orange juice; frogs' legs stuffed with pork and studded with sesame seeds; green rice ice-cream; grilled oysters topped with caviar-filled banh cuon rolls.

Didier takes me on a tour of the Hanoi streets and markets that are the source of his ideas. This is a lot of fun. We start at the 19 December Market, named for the day in 1945 that the Viet Minh nationalists launched their first attack on the French in Hanoi. Didier enjoys that. In the market he's very popular, not just because of the liberal way in which he buys up everything that looks interesting - some flowering chives here, some good-looking crabs there - but because he is also a celebrity chef on Vietnamese TV. People come to thank him for speaking up for their food.

'I am a dog - sniffing out the new,' he says. Didier the bloodhound progresses through the narrow alleys of stalls, snuffling over the intriguing and, just occasionally, the unknown. We inspect snails as big as fists and rich-smelling vegetables from the great fertile fields of central Vietnam; beautiful grey mullet and bundles of plump, lime-green frogs, flapping grumpily on a string like a chain-gang; bottles of rice wine, each with a snake marinating in the bottom,('good for the belly,' according to Didier), a pile of hairless roast dogs. It is the market that has everything, including bundles of photocopied dollar bills, to burn as a sacrifice for dead relatives. In our wake, Didier's secretary hands out money to the traders, scribbling down notes of the ideas that occur to the chef.

And there are many of those. He wants to try a sorbet made of nuoc mam , the Vietnamese fermented fish sauce that is a staple in most dishes, though not an obvious ingredient in desserts. We see people selling slices of pineapple, with a dip of sugar, salt and chilli powder: Didier wonders if you could caramelise this into a sauce he could serve on pineapple in the hotel. This sounds pretty unlikely to me, until later I try his lime sorbet sprinkled with chopped, candied red chilli, and I see he has a point. The secretary keeps scribbling.

One of the things that interests Didier - and indeed his deputy head chef and collaborator, Nguyen Thanh Van - is how the food of necessity becomes the food of choice. In the market I see people grinding up thumb-joint sized crabs in a pestle and mortar to make a vile green-brown mash. During the hungry time it was a make-do flavouring for noodle soups; now it is part of the Hanoi culinary habit. 'It's strange,' says Madame Van, 'that an idea from the war turns into a deluxe dish we can serve in a five-star restaurant. Who would have imagined that, 20 years ago?'

The pressed rice cakes that were developed as a way of getting nutritious, long-lasting food down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to soldiers fighting in the South are now a favoured snack. The water that vegetables have been steamed in is kept for use in soups, as it was in the famine time, and bits of the greens you might chuck out are prized. 'In Europe we throw away too much,' says Didier. The Metropole restaurants serve a street dish that takes the stalks and leaves of pumpkins, strips their hairy skin, and sautés them with garlic and fish sauce. Pork offal fetches a higher price in the market than does the animal's fillet. Indeed, there's another Vietnamese food-equals-sex saying that states that while the greatest pleasure in the world is forbidden love, pig's entrails are a close runner up. 'Yes,' says Didier. 'Fifty years of war can teach you some things.'

Pho bò beef and noodle soup

Stocks for the noodle broths of North Vietnam are made from almost any meat or fish. Eel is popular, so is pork and chicken, but the pho that Vietnamese poets write rapturously about is Hanoi's beef-stock based pho bò.

serves 6

the stock: 600g raw beef bones, 250g beef rump or shoulder
15g shallot 15g, 20g ginger root, 1 star anise, 3cm cinnamon stick, 1 pod black cardamom
(To make the stock from chicken, substitute 300g of chicken bones and a 1kg free-range chicken)

600g fresh pho rice noodles, or 400g dried rice noodles
the accessories:

beef fillet, 100g, sliced into the thinnest strips possible

6og each of sweet mint, European coriander, saw-tooth coriander (if not available get double the quantity of ordinary coriander); spring onion and 2 red chillies both finely chopped /2 limes, chopped into quarters

cup of Vietnamese nuoc mam, or another fermented fish sauce

salt, pepper

Grill the ginger and shallots until blackened on the outside. Crush anise and cardamom, and put all these with the cinnamon into a clean cloth, and tie into a secure bag. Mix the sliced raw beef with a little crushed fresh ginger. Wash the beef bones and put them into three litres of cold water. Boil briskly, skimming the surface when necessary for about 10 mins. Add the bag of spices, the fish sauce and the chunk of rump or shoulder, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 2 hrs.

Remove the spice bag and bones. Take out the beef rump (or chicken) and let it drain and dry. Skim the surface of the stock again, if necessary and check the seasoning. Keep the stock hot, but be careful not to let it reduce too much. (Some people let the stock stand and cool, so that some of the fat can be removed from the surface - more healthy, but not traditional.)
Slice some of the drained boiled rump (or chicken) into bite-sized slivers. If using fresh rice noodles, blanche them in boiling water for two seconds. (If using dried noodles or pasta, follow the instructions on the packet, but make sure they are served hot and reasonably firm.) Arrange the noodles in individual bowls, filling perhaps half the bowl. Make sure the stock is very hot. Arrange a few pieces of the meat, both raw and cooked, on the top of the noodles, and add half a handful of the chopped herbs.

Pour on the stock to cover all the ingredients. Serve immediately, with the pepper, chopped chilli and fresh lime on the side. Chopsticks and a spoon are used to eat the pho. Finish with a cup of green tea.

Alex Renton stayed at the Sofitel Metropole, Hanoi.
Didier Corlou and Nguyen Thi Kim Hai offer lessons in traditional Vietnamese cuisine to visitors. Vietnamese Home Cooking by Didier Corlu is available from Amazon.

Asian Journey; Looking Up an Old Love On the Streets of Vietnam

SHE used to walk past my little villa in Saigon, not far from the American embassy, her conical straw hat on the back of her head, white pajamas flapping as she loped down the street, soup makings dangling from the wooden yoke across her frail shoulders. She came early every morning, repeating the monosyllable with an inimitable inflection.

''Pho,'' she called, her voice gentle and plaintive. ''Pho.''

That was 35 years ago, and I took it for granted that the delectable, aromatic noodle soup she sold, crowned with a lush tangle of green herbs, had originated many generations ago in the fertile Mekong Delta. Wrong on both counts, as I discovered when I finally returned not long ago to this ancient land that struggled so fiercely for freedom. Pho was developed by cooks in Hanoi, not in the south, and not until after the French arrived late in the 19th century, importing their love of beef to a pork-eating culture.

The name might have given me a clue. ''Pho'' is pronounced almost exactly like ''feu,'' the French word for fire, as in pot-au-feu. Did Vietnamese cooks learn its secrets while toiling in the kitchens of colonial masters? Some think so; others think it evolved from Chinese models, like the Vietnamese language and the people themselves.

Today it is a national passion, beloved across the country in hamlets as in cities. It is almost as widely available in the United States, where few big cities lack a pho shop, and some, like Washington, have dozens.

In Hanoi, pho is a cult. It is served in alleyways and on street corners all over town, usually on low plastic tables, surrounded by even lower plastic stools, only about 12 inches high, that always make me feel like a circus elephant trying to balance on a ball. These are set on the sidewalk, in the gutter and even in the roadway; the Vietnamese give special meaning to the phrase ''street food.''

Here the soothing broth is paler than in the United States or in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon's official name, HCMC for short). The rice noodles are more delicately translucent, and fewer embellishments are added than in the more indulgent south. The result is light and thrillingly restorative. On a good day, I think I could eat three bowls and leave under my own power.
My wife, Betsey, and I stopped in at Mai Anh, one of a string of open-air pho shops on Le Van Huu Street, which runs along the southern edge of Hanoi's bustling French Quarter. Stock made by simmering oxtails and marrow bones for 24 hours, along with onions, star anise, ginger and cinnamon bark, was bubbling away in a cauldron perched on a charcoal stove. Bowls of various meats -- cooked chicken, giblets, paper-thin raw sirloin, pig hearts -- awaited our inspection. We chose beef.

If you choose chicken, you will be eating pho ga; if you choose beef, you will be eating pho bo. I don't imagine for a minute that you'll choose pig hearts.

The pho-meister dunks a sieve full of flat, precooked noodles into a pot of boiling water (so they do not cool the soup), drains them and slides them into a bowl. Thinly sliced onions and chopped coriander leaves go in next, along with shavings of ginger. Then the blood-red beef, and last a few ladles of hot stock, which cooks the meat in a few seconds while giving off a fragrant, enveloping cloud of steam.

On the table are spring onions, red chili sauce and vinegar with garlic slices to enrich your meal-in-a-bowl, plus several lime wedges. A southerner would feel deprived without some bean sprouts, and without a plate heaped high with herbs -- rau que, or Asian basil; earthy ngo gai, or sawleaf herb; and once in a great while rau ram, or Vietnamese coriander. But the northerners are ascetics compared with their southern cousins. Still influenced by the puritanical Confucianism of their Chinese neighbors, they prefer their flavors pure, unadorned and crystal-clear.

As you will find when you dig in -- chopsticks in one hand, plastic spoon in the other -- no sacrifice of heartiness or complexity is entailed. Mix and slurp, sniff and gulp to your heart's content, for less than $1.

For some reason the snarl of the motorbikes as they stream past, all but nipping at your ankles, is no distraction. Maybe because it's so much fun to watch your fellow eaters, especially if some are novices. We saw an eager if inept German woman get through her soup by coiling her noodles around her chopsticks with her free hand.

THE Vietnamese wax poetic about pho, assigning it a central and unifying place in their culture. Duong Thu Huong, a novelist, rhapsodized about walking the streets, inhaling the soup's subtle perfume as it rises from the stockpots. Huu Ngoc, a social historian, sees it as a symbol of the national fight for self-determination: even in the darkest times, when the wars against the French and Americans were going badly, the Vietnamese were always free to express themselves by making and eating pho, their own culinary creation.

''It was complete, nutritious, infinitely delicious and yet so easy to digest,'' he recalled a few years ago, ''that we could eat it morning and night, day after day.'' And so the northerners do, looking down upon the southerners, who eat their pho mainly at breakfast and occasionally at lunch.

For the Vietnamese, even those who left the country long ago, pho tends to stir memories, the way a madeleine did for Proust. I, too, was ambushed by the past. A bowl of bun bo Hue, the imperial capital's spicier version of pho, made with round noodles, beef, pork, lemon grass and whole chilies, carried me back to the turbulent days of the Buddhist uprising of 1966, when John D. Negroponte, now the United States representative at the United Nations, was in charge of the American consulate in Hue, on the very street where I was eating.

Our friend Mai Pham, who was born in Saigon, runs a hugely successful Vietnamese restaurant, Lemon Grass, in Sacramento. She also writes cookbooks, most recently ''Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table'' (HarperCollins, 2001), and she has developed a refrigerated pho stock base, marketed to restaurants and institutions by StockPot, a subsidiary of the Campbell Soup Company.

Why, I asked her recently, does pho fascinate you so much?

''It's so beefy!'' she exclaimed with a smile and without hesitation. ''For me, it's the ultimate comfort food. You smell the soup's perfume, and it's so beefy!''

Her husband, Greg Drescher, director of education at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, chimed in. Perhaps for the Vietnamese, for most of whom beef remains a great luxury, he said, but not for Americans, for whom it is one of life's commonplaces.
What attracts me is the hypnotic mixture of flavors in the broth, especially those imparted by spices like star anise and ginger. Preliminary charring of the onions and ginger adds a smoky undertone. In the south, the mingling of sweet, sour and salty tastes is further augmented by a few dashes of nuoc mam, the fermented fish sauce that plays the same role in Vietnam that soy plays in much of Asia. The clearest and most pungent comes from Phu Quoc island, off the south coast.

No one has ever accused me of being a minimalist; when I'm lucky enough to land within range of an In-N-Out burger joint, for example, I order my double double with the works. So it's no surprise that I load up my pho with a couple of squeezes of lime juice, a scattering of bean sprouts (if they're sufficiently crunchy), a disk or two of hot green chili and a variety of herb leaves, pulled carefully from their stems.

That's the Saigon style: a bowl of soup and a salad, all in one.

SAIGON, or HCMC, to be proper about it, has a range of soup shops, from tiny ones in the Hanoi style to a few pho factories like Pho 2000, near the Ben Thanh market, which Bill Clinton put on the map by eating there. Occasionally, a gifted, energetic cook will make pho at home -- a major task, given the time needed to make the broth -- and one of the best bowls we ate was served to us at home by Nguyen Huu Hoang Trang, a veteran of restaurant kitchens.

So fine was her touch that every one of the key ingredients, from cinnamon to anise to ginger to onions, was individually discernible in the perfumed steam that rose from the soup, and in the flavor, too.

You could miss my favorite breakfast place in downtown Saigon if you got there at the wrong time of day, which is anytime after about 11 in the morning. There is no sign, and most of the furnishings disappear after the close of business.

Run by a tiny, wizened man whom people call Chu Sau, which means Sixth Uncle, it consists of a few battered Formica tables in a gloomy alley covered with a corrugated tin roof, plus several of those diabolically low tables and chairs, murder for my aging knees, on the sidewalk. The address is 39 Mac Thi Buoi, two long blocks from the Caravelle Hotel, toward the river.
Chu Sau's limpid pho comes with a bowl of notably crisp mung bean sprouts, hoisin sauce (best avoided, I think, because it muddies the soup's flavor) and an unusually bright orange chili sauce, as well as Asian basil and fuzzy-leafed mint. What set it apart, for me, was the mellowness of the amber-hued broth, in which the taste of cinnamon was pronounced. It glittered in the mouth, the way homemade bouillon does and beef stock made from a cube doesn't.

The noodles were perfectly al dente, if you will permit a solecism, and I enjoyed them so much that I didn't even give myself a demerit when I splashed chili sauce all over my white polo shirt.
Pho Dau, located in a courtyard off Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Boulevard, which leads to the airport, is an entirely different kettle of soup. During the war, it was a hangout for South Vietnamese generals; now it is a haunt of the new, privileged capitalists, whose Mercedes S.U.V.'s and $6,000 Honda motorbikes are parked out front. Bits of beef cartilage and tendon enrich its broth, as do quantities of coriander.

With our pho, we drank glasses of fabulously smooth ca phe sua da, which is Vietnamese filter coffee, served iced with condensed milk. As we watched the well-dressed customers eating pho for breakfast, we talked about how odd soup seems to us Americans as a daily curtain-raiser. But it isn't that strange, really: the Japanese eat miso; the Chinese eat congee, a soupy porridge; the French (particularly Parisians) eat onion soup after a night on the town; and the Hungarians eat sauerkraut-and-sausage soup to ease a hangover.

Pho Hoa, an open-front restaurant on Pasteur Street, is less grubby and more cosmopolitan than most noodle shops, with comfortable tables and chairs. I learned some more lessons there, even though it came late on our soup schedule. Lesson 1: the richness that characterizes well-made pho broth comes not from fat, which must be skimmed from the broth, but from marrow. Lesson 2: you can order not only rare beef (tai) in your pho, but also well-done beef (chin) and fatty beef (gau).

My teachers were the affable gent at the next table, Lam-Hoang Nguyen, a visiting Vietnamese restaurateur from Thunder Bay, Ontario, on Lake Superior, and his wife, Kim-Ha Lai.
''When we come back,'' he confided after a while, ''we always go right into the street. The street is where you find the quality in Saigon -- not in hotels.''

THAT'S good advice, not only in HCMC, and not only when you want a bowl of pho. Vietnam is full of quick, fresh, readily available nibbles, and many people eat four or five mini-meals every day.

In the main Saigon market, Ben Thanh, where you can buy a suitcase, look live snakes in the eye, shop for spices and snack the day away, we discovered bun thit nuong -- an irresistible combination of vermicelli threads tossed in scallion oil, topped with lettuce, strips of barbecued pork, cucumber and carrot slices and peanuts, and dressed with nuoc cham, a luscious sauce made from nuoc mam diluted with water, sugar, lime juice and chilies. Sweet and tart, bland and spicy, soft and crunchy, ample but light, it made a luscious hot-weather lunch early one afternoon.

No wonder Mr. Drescher always makes a point of heading for the market to eat bun thit as soon as he steps off the plane from California.

One evening at Anh Thi, one of several Saigon crepe shops in narrow Dinh Cong Trang Street, we watched orange tongues of flame dart from underneath charcoal braziers to lick at the dusk. The crepes are called banh xeo, the word ''xeo'' an onomatopoeic rendering of the sound of batter hitting the pan.

The cooks sit on low benches in front of batteries of braziers topped with 12-inch pans; they control the speed of cooking by shifting pans from one fire to another. The crepes are yet another example of the Vietnamese genius for combining inexpensive ingredients to produce lively but never overpowering tastes and intriguing textures. In this case the secrets are a light, bright crepe batter made with rice powder, coconut milk, local curry powder and turmeric; a filling of shrimp, bean sprouts and unsmoked bacon; and, as is so often the case here, a wrap and a dip.

You tear off a piece of crepe, wrap it in a mustard-green leaf with an aroma so sharp that it made me sneeze, add a chili and some mint, and dip the whole package in peppery, faintly sweet, faintly fishy nuoc cham. The special crepe, with an extra-large portion of shrimp, cost all of $1.35.

''Delicious, nutritious and cheap,'' Betsey said. ''I think that's a pretty tough combination to beat.''

At Lac Thien in Hue, whose proprietors are deaf-mutes, we sampled the local version of crepes, known as banh khoai, or ''happy pancakes,'' served at steel-topped tables. These are smaller, about six inches in diameter, sweeter and eggier. They are served not with mustard greens but with coriander and mint, and not with nuoc cham but with a fermented soybean sauce.
Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi, owned by the same family for generations, serves stunning freshwater fish, cubed and braised with turmeric. Dill, spring onions, peanuts and chilies are at hand to enliven flavor.

Splendid stuff. But except for pho, no street food we ate could touch the phenomenal fare at Bun Cha Hang Manh in Hanoi's Old Quarter, a four-story warren of tiny rooms and cracked floors. Crouching women cook everything on tiny propane stoves in the open-air entrance hall. ''Everything'' consists of two items, both of which are the best of their kind available, in Hanoi or anywhere else, for that matter.

One of them is bun cha, Vietnam's apotheosis of the pig. It consists of charcoal-grilled strips of belly pork and pork patties the size of a silver dollar. These arrive at a table laden with a plate of rice noodles, a plate of red and green lettuce and herbs of every description, a little bowl of finely chopped young garlic and a bigger bowl of nuoc cham, with slices of tenderizing papaya bobbing gaily in it. For hotheads, there are incendiary bird chilies.

Hang Manh's second dish is spring rolls (nem ran in the north and cha gio in the south) -- great fat ones, as thick as your thumb, packed with crab, ground pork, wood-ear mushrooms, onions and bean threads. I noticed right away that the frying oil was changed every few minutes, and of course the rolls emerged from it crackling, light and greaseless.

''These rolls make the rest of what we've had here taste like so many Rice Krispies,'' Betsey announced.

We went twice, at 11:30 a.m. both times, to avoid the throngs that pack this humble restaurant, while ignoring others serving similar specialties. We ate until we could eat no more. I wonder: can there be any better $3 lunch for two, anywhere in the world?

Published: August 13, 2003


Vietnam's treasured beef noodle soup that brings families together

We're a feisty group, the Vietnamese. Get us together in a room and we'll debate endlessly over the north and south of our politics, the clashes of our history, the contradictions of our culture.
But mention pho (pronounced fuh) -- our beloved beef noodle soup -- and immediately our differences vanish. Our eyes shine, our faces beam. All of a sudden we've become an agreeable family with a love for one another that's as strong, compelling and reassuring as the beefy steam that billows and curls from a bowl of pho.

Sound overstated? Not one bit. Not if you're Vietnamese and born in the old country. For to us, pho is life, love and all things that matter. We treasure pho, and most of us have loved it since the day we were old enough to hold a pair of chopsticks. [an error occurred while processing this directive] For me, the fascination began when I was 5. Every weekend, my parents would take me and my siblings to Pho 79, a small, dark and run-down noodle shop in Saigon with wobbly tables and squeaky stools. Yet every time we went, it was always packed and difficult to find a table.

So we resorted to a practiced routine. With hawk eyes, we'd scan the room, searching for a party about to leave. As soon as we found one, we quickly dashed over, sort of inconspicuously standing on the side, waiting for the right moment to seize our table.
Once seated, my parents placed our usual order: pho tai chin or pho with both rare and cooked beef for everyone, and, for the adults, ca phe sua da -- a delicious coffee drink served with condensed milk and ice.

Moments later, the server, step by careful step, slowly approached with large bowls filled to the brim. As soon as they were placed before us, a warm, thick, wavy steam arose and embraced our faces.

Bending down, we slowly inhaled the aroma as if to verify its authenticity. Yes, the broth smelled utterly beefy, laced with just-roasted ginger, anise and freshly chopped onions and cilantro. The rice noodles looked velvety and fresh, the edges of the rare beef curled up expectantly in the hot broth.

All was well.

Then, arms and hands crisscrossing, we reached for a piece of lime to squeeze into the broth, a handful of cool, crisp bean sprouts, a few sprigs of Asian basil and saw-leaf herbs and fresh chiles. Against the noisy laughter and chitchat, we savored our soup, chewing, slurping and giggling until the last drop.

Even though my family first discovered pho in Saigon in the late 1950s, it actually originated in the north in Hanoi around the turn of the century.
Based on literary accounts, the cooking and enjoyment of pho surfaced sometime after the French occupation of Hanoi in the mid-1880s. The Vietnamese, who valued cows and buffaloes as indispensable beasts of burden, ate little red meat, preferring pork, chicken and seafood. But with the French affection for bifteck and dishes with boeuf, red meat began to appear in markets and restaurants, thereby slowly influencing the local diet, especially that of the upper class.

How did the increasing popularity of beef prompt the creation of pho?

It's a steamy debate, even to this day. However, some Hanoi cultural experts with ancestors who are said to have witnessed the birth of pho believe this dish parallels the history of Vietnam, harboring both a Chinese and French connection. (The former occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years and the latter almost 100 years.)

Some theorize it was the French who triggered pho, popularizing the use of bones and lesser cuts of beef to make broth. After all, in a society that wasted nothing, what was one to do with all the bones carved from biftecks? In fact, they believe perhaps it was first created when Vietnamese cooks learned to make pot au feu for their French masters. The name pho, they suspect, might have even come from feu. But others argue that while the French can take credit for popularizing beef, it was actually the Chinese who inspired the dish with ingredients like noodles, ginger and anise. Then there are still others who claim it was the Chinese, and the Chinese alone, who instigated this culinary wonder.

But regardless of the origin, Chinese or French or both, once at the stove, the Vietnamese were quick to interject their own ideas. They concocted an exciting dish, using ingredients inspired by their foreign rulers but customizing it to include nuoc mam, or fish sauce, the defining characteristic of the local cuisine.

In the 1930s, in part spurred by nationalistic sentiments, some Hanoi scholars wrote passionately about pho, a food that not only cleverly provided all the necessary nourishment in one convenient bowl, but one that also symbolically freed the Vietnamese. At last, the Vietnamese succeeded in their fight for self-determination; finally they were free to express themselves, if only through their pho.

Huu Ngoc, a prolific author and cultural expert who's written that pho is a contribution to human happiness, recently recalled his memories of those times: ``Pho was very special, almost status food. We loved it because it had everything we valued -- rice noodles, broth, meat and vegetables. It was complete, nutritious, infinitely delicious and yet so easy to digest that we could eat it morning and night, day after day.''

In 1954, the infectious enthusiasm and following for this dish spread south. Vietnam had been partitioned, and the north fell under Communist control. Almost 1 million northerners fled south, taking with them a dream of a new life.

For some, this new life meant the re-creation of a pho culture.

Pho took the south by storm. My mother, a southerner who had just moved from her village to Saigon where my dad got his first job out of military school, had never seen or heard of pho until then. Though there were sightings as early as the late 1940s, it didn't become popular until after the mass migration of 1954.

At the time my mother and her contemporaries slurped on hu tieu, a Chinese-style rice noodle soup made with pork bones and pork meat. ``When I first tasted the pho, I thought it was incredible,'' my mother remembers. ``It was similar to hu tieu, but the aromatic beef stock and and roasted spices made it so much more exciting. I knew instantly it was the soup to eat.''
From then on, whenever she and my father could afford it, which was about once a month, they would treat themselves to this new delicacy.

In the south, pho became highly embellished. Reflecting the abundance of its new surroundings, it had more meat (imagine the portion now in the United States), more noodles, more broth. Because southerners are by nature indulgent -- demanding richer, livelier flavors and textures -- bean sprouts and rau thom or fragrant herbs such as saw- leaf and basil were added.
And it didn't stop there. Garnishes such as lime wedges, fresh chiles, chile sauce and tuong, or black bean sauce, were served alongside, giving the soup a dimension never before experienced. As in the north, it quickly became a favorite, but only after it had been modified to fit and reflect southern taste.

In 1975, when my family first arrived in the United States after the fall of Saigon, we desperately missed pho. At the time there weren't many noodle shops. But when we did find one, the soup usually didn't taste that good because of the lack of Asian ingredients, particularly herbs. Yet we ate it whenever we could, great or not. To us a steaming bowl of pho was a welcoming thought. A taste of home, it warmed our spirits and gave us the comfort and solace needed in our first difficult years.

Fortunately, over time, immigrant families such as ours have successfully readjusted to our new life in America. And somehow, in the midst of all this transformation, pho -- which followed us through tumultuous times and journeys -- also became integrated into our present- day life. Authentic recipes have been dusted off, preserved and executed with great fervor.
Noodle shops have now proliferated throughout the United States, opening not only in the traditional enclaves of immigrant communities, but in mainstream neighborhoods as well. In many shops, Asians and Westerners sit side by side, munching on the long, chewy noodles. [an error occurred while processing this directive] The appeal of this soup -- once felt only by native connoisseurs -- has spread beyond nationality and attracted a new following. As before, pho has once again survived and triumphed.

For me, even decades after my childhood days in Saigon and thousands of miles away from my native country, pho remains my obsession. If I'm not eating a bowl of pho, it lurks in my consciousness, its enticing aromas assuring me that, somehow, it will always be a part of my life.
PHO PARTICULARSIn Vietnam, pho is mostly a restaurant food. Though some people prepare it at home, most prefer going to noisy soup shops. Here are a few tips:

-- Pho comes with a variety of toppings including rare beef, well-done beef and slices of brisket, tendon, tripe and even meatballs. If you're a novice, try pho tai chin, which includes the rare and well-done beef combination.

-- When the bowl arrives, eat it while it's piping hot. If you wait for it to cool, the noodles will expand and get soggy.

-- Sprinkle some black pepper, then add bean sprouts, fresh chiles and a little squeeze of lime to your bowl. Using your fingers, pluck the Asian basil leaves from their sprigs and, if they're available, shred the saw-leaf herbs and add to the soup. Add little by little, eating as you go. If you put the greens in all at once, the broth will cool too fast and the herbs will overcook and lose their bright flavors. Chile sauce and hoisin sauce are also traditional condiments but I avoid them because, to my taste, they mask the flavor of pho. You, however, may like them.

-- With spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other, pull the noodles out of the broth and eat, alternatively slurping on the broth. It's totally acceptable and normal to be seen with clumps of noodles dangling from your mouth, eyes squinting from the steam and glasses all fogged up.

-- The broth is served in large amounts to keep the noodles warm and to help season the dish. It's not necessarily meant to be totally consumed. But if you do happen to be in the mood, it is perfectly OK to tip the bowl and scoop out every single drop.

Mai Pham
Wednesday, November 5, 1997