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Most culinary historians believe that pho, the ever-popular Vietnamese beef or chicken noodle soup, originated in North Vietnam, in Hanoi, then travelled to the South around 1954 with the northerners who fled the Communist regime and then set up pho restaurants, mainly in Saigon.
There's a significant difference in climate between North and South Vietnam - the North has winter, so pho was traditionally a breakfast dish, and most of the pho street stalls in Hanoi would pack up and call it a day around 10am, reappearing the next day around 6am.
Growing up in Saigon during the '60s, I would go with my father on his Lambretta scooter to eat pho ga (chicken) at a restaurant called Pho Ga Binh Minh (meaning sunrise) on Ky Dong Street. As this only happened once in a while, I was full of excitement and anticipation for this special treat - pho then was way more expensive than the usual breakfast of sticky rice, boiled sweet potatoes and cassava, or baguette and sweetened condensed milk.
As soon as we descended the Truong Minh Giang Bridge, I could detect the aroma tinged with ginger and onion and chicken fat in the early morning air. My father would order a drip-filter coffee and a bowl of pho ga, a bowl of just noodles and broth for me (he would transfer some of the glistening slivers of chicken thigh meat with the fatty yellow skin from his bowl to mine) and a plateful of bean sprouts and fresh herbs, lime cheeks and chilli on the table. Slowly sipping the soup from the spoon, slurping the strands of noodle, squeezing in some lime, adding chilli, bean sprouts and torn herbs while looking at that inviting cooked chicken hanging above a large simmering pot of broth, I wished I could eat pho for every meal of the day, or that my bowl would miraculously refill itself endlessly.
Pho is not tricky to make. All you need is a large stockpot, beef bones for pho bo (beef), or a whole free-range chicken and carcasses for pho ga, and fresh ginger, onions, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander seeds and flat rice noodles, fresh or dried. You can even make the noodles yourself using a combination of rice and tapioca flours. It's best to make pho broth in large quantities and freeze any extra for later use. Chicken broth is a lot faster to make and involves fewer spices.
To serve pho you need a deep bowl into which a handful of blanched noodles is placed then topped with paper-thin slices of raw beef, or slices of poached chicken with the skin on, chopped spring onion and coriander, plus thinly sliced onion. The boiling-hot, aromatic broth is then ladled into the bowl and it's stirred in a circular motion to partly cook the beef and garnishes.
The next step is to season it to your liking, squeezing in lemon or lime, then to add bean sprouts, sliced chilli and fresh herbs: Thai basil, mint, sawtooth coriander, rice paddy herb and chilli to your taste. Hoisin and chilli sauces are essential for dipping. Some people add both sauces to the noodles and mix it through; others like to combine their sliced chilli, lemon juice, chilli sauce and fish sauce in a separate dish in place of hoisin for a customised dipping sauce. Then all you need is a pair of chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon to eat it.
Eating pho is a ritual art. First you submerge the toppings, then fill the spoon with noodles, meat, garnishes and broth, and taste - this is how one can judge the true flavour and the quality of the pho - then adjust the seasoning to your taste.
Before 1975, hardly anyone in South Vietnam would make pho at home since pho bo and pho ga could be found at local restaurants everywhere. Pho restaurants also popped up outside Vietnam, mainly in France, in the '50s and '60s, run by those who fled the Communist regime or the Ngo Dinh Diem presidency. Displaced Vietnamese who called many different countries home after 1975 have brought pho to global attention.
In countries such as America, Canada and Australia, going to pho restaurants for breakfast every day is almost impossible, unless you live near Vietnamese-populated areas, so most people would try to make pho at home, thus giving rise to pho seasoning cubes, paste sachets and packets of mixed pho spices in Asian groceries.
My sister and her husband have settled in Loomis, a semi-rural area near Sacramento, California. They raise chickens, grow limes, lemons, green onions, herbs, ginger and chilli, and even germinate their own bean sprouts from mung beans to make proper pho ga. And I can attest that my brother-in-law, Cuong Vu, makes the best pho (both ga and bo) I've ever tasted. He kindly gave me the recipes for the broth, which is the essential part of a good bowl of pho.
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