Pho is the national dish of Vietnam and can be enjoyed from the northern boarder with China all the way down to the southern tip of Vietnam. Depending on location the experience can be very different but the fundamentals are always the same.
Pho is technically a noodle but the term is now firmly attached to a noodle soup served with herbs and bo (beef) or ga (chicken). Family recipes are abundant but staunchly guarded, passed down from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law (it is tradition for the daughter to move to her husband's home).
To a westerner, the subtle differences from one pho shop to the next are near impossible to notice but locals will regale you with the differences particular to their province of origin. So far, all I have gathered is that pho in Saigon is sweeter than pho in Hanoi.
My favorite aspect of the phở experience is that each bowl boasts two artists, the cook and the consumer. Perched on a plastic stool and hunched over a squat plastic table I always look forward to adding the final touches to my favorite bowl of pho, pho bo tai chin (pho with cooked and raw beef). At every table there are sliced chilies, young green kumquats, watery garlic sauce and viscous chili sauce begging to compliment your pho.
It appears that most Vietnamese have their own specific phở routine and so I set out to create my own. I always start by dipping a spoon into the broth for an initial probing taste.
After this inaugural sip, I proceed with one of the two routines that I am currently perfecting; the sweet routine or the sweet then spicy routine. The sweet routine calls for one or two green kumquats, a splash of the watery garlic sauce and a couple slices of chilies. The cornerstone of this routine is how you extract the sweet juice from the kumquat while avoiding their pesky seeds.
The trick is to squeeze the kumquat into your spoon and then use the side of the bowl to block the seeds, which are discarded in the obligatory trash bin under the table.
I love this delicious routine but sometimes I am in the mood to put a little more spice into my life. Hence, the sweet then spicy routine, where I squeeze one or two kumquats into my broth, eat about a third of the soup and then add a splash of watery garlic sauce and a spoon of viscous chili sauce.
The kick of the chili sauce yanks my sinuses through the remaining two-thirds of the delicious meal and gives me further justification to have a beer on hand to douse my tongue.
The dish itself is consumed with a spoon for the broth and chopsticks for the noodles and meat. This bi-utensiled approach adds yet another dimension to the phở experience. After a few bowls of pho, I was bothered by the fact that I consistently ended up fishing around a big bowl of broth for the remaining noodles and meat, cumbersomely slipping them from the soup with my chopsticks.
I quickly realized that I should utilize my spoon more in order to even out the distribution of broth to “stuff” throughout the meal, duh!
Above all else, phở is a beautiful piece of art that the people of Vietnam have created and perfected.
There is truly nothing more Hanoian than enjoying a bowl of steaming phở on the pulsating streets of Hanoi.
Randolph Lovelace III