4 minutes reading time Vietnam
While in Hanoi, or anywhere else in Vietnam, you do not want to miss the best bowl of noodles in the world. Pho, at face value, is a simple soup similar to noodle soups found all over Asia: a clear broth with rice noodles and shallots, meat placed on top (usually beef or chicken), and a few herbs on the side. But once you taste that first spoonful of broth, you’ll realize there so much more going on. You’ll taste years of intermingled history, hours of simmering spices, flavors previously undiscovered on your tongue.
The incredible broth is simmered for hours with bones, charred onions and charred ginger, and an impressive mix of spices: sticks of cinnamon, star anise, clove, cardamom, coriander seeds, and fennel seeds. The bowl is then prepared with a pile of rice noodles and thin slices of raw beef. Next, the strained broth is poured over everything, cooking the beef.
The history of pho is as complex as the broth itself, with no clear evidence of its origins. Initially gaining popularity around the late 1800s to the turn of the century, some say it came from the French colonizers and their beef stew, pot-au-feu. Others believe it originated from a Chinese noodle soup imported to Hanoi with Cantonese immigrants. And then there are those who believe that regardless of the name, some form of the soup has always been around in a village called Van Cu, around 60 miles southeast of Hanoi.
Either way, the use of beef in the soup is almost guaranteed to come from the French because prior to colonization, the Vietnamese did not typically eat beef, using cows for physical labor. Once the French arrived, butchers began prepping beef for food consumption and others looked for ways to use the excess bones. This led to beef broth being the most common base for street vendors and shops selling pho.
After the splitting of Vietnam in 1954, many North Vietnamese moved south to live in and around Saigon. With them came the desire for pho, leading to the soup growing in popularity in the south. But with new regions came new variations. South Vietnamese chefs made a broth slightly sweeter and offered more varieties of toppings and sauces to add once served. This version of pho is what you’ll find more often around the world because of the number of South Vietnamese immigrants after the end of the Vietnam War, bringing pho to the shores of the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Suggesting pho for every meal of the day might sound wild, and not everybody’s going to want to do it, but what an experience. The different locations serving at certain times will force you to head into certain neighborhoods. You’ll then quickly learn the taste of the different variations.
Breakfast pho is a simpler broth with strong hints of cinnamon. Lunch might be a quick bowl at a street vendor, chicken broth this time for a lighter meal. For dinner, the highest quality rare beef with lovely chunks of fat that are so buttery they just melt in your mouth. This particular bowl is asking for south Vietnam’s array of toppings: chilis, basil, lime, hoisin sauce, and maybe some Sriracha.
If you still can’t get enough pho, there’s a fun cocktail bar on the north side of Hanoi called the Unicorn Pub. They specialize in unique cocktails based on the flavors and experiences of Hanoi. Their most popular? The Pho Cocktail. Sit at the bar to watch them create this incredible drink, pouring the inflamed liquor through a 3-level contraption of spices they built specifically for this cocktail. It’s a sight and a taste worth experiencing!
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