Phở. Phuh. Like you want to say foe but you give up halfway through. Phuh. That’s how it’s pronounced.
To those unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine, it’s unusual, this phở, and not just the pronunciation. It’s a noodle dish, but it acts like a soup. It’s from Vietnam, but it’s French-influenced. It’s got a complex beef broth that the noodles swim in, but it’s got enough beef to put on a plate as a meal in its own. It’s served with a side plate of vegetables, sprouts, limes (or lemons), basil and peppers that almost looks like a salad. So really, you could say phở is a soup. Or you could say it’s a noodle dish. Or a beef dish. And you’d be right.
Except that it’s also so much more.
“Phở has lots of different styles – you’ll never eat two different ones that taste the same, and it not only has to do with whether you’re from the North, Central or South, but it depends on your mom, your grandmother or your aunt and what they made for you growing up,” says Khanh Dao, owner and GM of Phở Colonial in North Dallas (and soon to be in Downtown Dallas). “Every young person from Vietnam will say ‘oh, the phở’s supposed to be this way,’ and you have to tell them, ‘no, that’s just how your mom made it.’”
Generally speaking, though, phở is typically served with slices of beef and rice noodles (bánh phở). Very generally, the broth is cooked for hours on end, similar to how one would make a stock, and such spices as star anise and cinnamon are added to play off the deep meatiness of the soup. It’s typically served with an assortment of vegetable and herb garnishes such as Thai basil, bean sprouts, chili peppers, and limes.
But it’s the broth that makes the dish so unique.
The French colonization of Vietnam from the mid-to-late 19th century to the mid-20th brought with it many positive and negative consequences, but one of the beneficial aspects for the Vietnamese was the influence the French had on the Vietnamese cuisine. Or more specifically in this case, the French affinity for beef and their skill at making stock with it.
“During the French tenure there, the nobility class brought in their own chefs and they wanted to eat their own food. But in Vietnam – because of the type of vegetation – you couldn’t have tons of cattle, so oxen were used primarily as tools, and not food,” Dao says. “But the French came in and – with some arrogance – said ‘we’re going to teach these people how to eat beef.’”
But the Vietnamese take on the French pot-au-feu (from which many, including Dao, believe the word phở is adapted) is a far, spicy cry from its counterpart. Whereas the French influenced the making of the hearty broth by browning and then simmering the beef for hours on end, the Vietnamese added their own zest to it in the form of cilantro, peppers, rice noodles, star anise and cinnamon (to name a few). What resulted was a filling, beefy soup/stew/noodle dish that tasted both fresh and light but efficiently satiated the appetite. The meat was tender, as even the toughest cuts are made toothsome with enough cooking – and it used just about any part of the cow that a family happened to have on hand (there are dozens of variations of phở depending on the part of the cow used). It was nutritious, practical, economical and delicious. And it soon became a staple of the Vietnamese table. In fact, in Pauline Nguyen’s book Secrets of the Red Lantern, contributor Luke Nguyen states not only how important it was to the Vietnamese cuisine in general, but also its importance to the family:
The day I learned to use chopsticks, there was a bowl of phở waiting for me. We all grew up on this national treasure. When my folks had Phở Cay Du (a restuarant) in Cabramatta, I would have phở every day.
But what rose to be Vietnam’s most famous noodle dish (according to Vietnamese Home Cooking for Everyone) is still relatively new to many in the United States, especially those not living on a coast. There have been many places in Dallas who have for years sold this dish, but none could be considered mainstream. That could soon change.
Not only are diners in general becoming more adventurous, but places such as Phở Colonial are modeling themselves to be more comfortable and accessible to those unfamiliar with either Vietnamese culture or cuisine. And that may not sound like a big deal, but when you’re given a massive bowl filled with beef and broth and noodles and cilantro and onions and some chopsticks and a spoon and a side of peppers and bean sprouts and a big sprig of Thai basil, trying to look like you know what you’re doing seems a little daunting.
So how do you eat it?
“Any way you want, really,” says Dao.
And she’s not being flippant. An aficionado of Vietnamese food might tell you that it’s meant to be eaten by adding the separate ingredients as you go, say, adding basil with every few bites, eating some noodles and beef with the chopsticks, then sipping the broth with the spoon, but really, there’s no right or wrong way.
“I’ve had people just eat the beef and noodles and leave all the broth, and then had some other people do the opposite,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, that’s not how I would recommend it, but it’s not wrong.”
So when you get it, you can add the bean spouts all at once or just eat them plain, or leave them alone. And no one’s going to judge you if you don’t touch the peppers, and you’re certainly not going to be shunned if you prefer a 4:1 ratio of sips of broth to bites of meat. Phở is a wonderfully practical dish that just happens to be delightful to the taste buds, and is really too reasonable to have rules applied to it. There truly is no wrong way to eat it.
Except, of course, to not eat it at all.
A few places to check out some good phở: