Vietnam: Discovering Phở

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking Vietnam is a country powered by phở. Phở is simply everywhere, from Hanoi in the North to the Mekong Delta in the South, phở is king.

When we decided to visit Vietnam in 2008 I was very excited about finally getting to sample its legendary cuisine first-hand. Vietnamese food was very much in vogue at the time, so my expectations were high. I had, of course, heard of phở but not being a great fan of clear soupy noodles, it wasn’t high on my list of things to try. It wasn’t until I arrived in Hồ Chí Minh City that I realized that phở was such an integral part of Vietnam’s food culture that I just had to try it. As with most countries in Asia, I figured the best food would be found in and around the local markets, so off I headed to lose my phở’ginity.

Beef PhoWell, the first thing I learnt about beef phở (Phở ) was that there are differing grades of the dish when ordering: there’s what I would term “classy phở” with thinly sliced raw fillet heaped on top and then ladled over with scorching broth to instantly poach the beef. Then there’s “poor man’s phở” which is topped with the shredded meat from the stewed beef and finally there’s my personal favourite, the “I want it all! phở”, which is a combination of the two.

The other thing I learnt about phở is that it isn’t pronounced like you’d think it would be – the ở is silent resulting in soft phonetic “frrr”. Locals seem to find particular mirth in watching tourists grapple with the simple act of ordering; you would say, “One bowl of beef frrrr, please”. And nothing. Their eyes would blink, mine would roll. A few seconds would pass and the phở vendor would flash their resplendent betel-nut smile and invariably say, “Phở? You want phở?”. Yes damn it, I want phở! Why else would I be sitting at your damn frrrr stall! Eating local food locally, isn’t always fun.

Anyway I digress. Back to the noodles. Phở wasn’t what I expected. Almost offensively fragrant, the broth was a deluge of flavours, contrasted by the silky ribbons of wide rice noodles. Adding to the heady mix, you have the zesty fresh herbs and zing of lime and then the bite of the chilli – it was a lot to process in a single bowl of noodles. I ate my noodles, paid my inflated tourist price and left feeling a little befuddled. Did I like it? I just didn’t know.

Much to my surprise, the next morning I woke up with just one thing on my mind, phở. I can only assume that during the night, my taste buds made sense of the bludgeoning they’d received. I woke up, hooked. I didn’t have to go far before finding my next phở fix. I ordered, I slurped, I sweated, I scoffed and before I knew it, I had the bowl to my mouth, gulping down the last of the fragrant beefy broth. I eventually emerged from the depths of the bowl to my partner (who had since returned from McDonalds) watching me. Bemused, he asked “I’m guessing it was good, then?” but he already knew the answer. Knowing all too well the warning signs of yet another of my food obsessions, he knew this was just the beginning.

By the end of our time in Vietnam, I had eaten my way from the South, all the way to the North. Some of it was good, occasionally it was excellent, but I found the best Vietnamese food inaccessible to your average tourist. Glimpsed in back alleys and ferociously protected by guarded vendors; this is where the really good food hides, all the rest felt like tourist fodder. Access to really good Vietnamese food takes time, certainly more time than a two week holiday; the good stuff is there, you just need to know where to find it, how to pronounce it and be brave enough to order it. And that’s what I loved about phở, it was everywhere, it was for everyone. As I slurped my noodles at one of the many phở chain restaurants, shoulder to shoulder with neatly dressed teenagers with their cellphones in one hand, chopsticks in the other and their flimsy motorcycle helmets perched on their knees; I felt accepted. Here I was just another person eating his phở.

If you are interested in making beef phở noodles at home, please follow this link to my Recipe Posts



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