Wednesday 01 May 2002

The glory of pho

Spring rolls from Pho 236 in NewtownLast week, taking a break from moving my Radio site to Movable Type, Herman Coomans and I had lunch at Pho 236, a Vietnamese place in Newtown, where I live.

Today I had lunch there again with my friend Gerrit Fokkema. We started with a serving of Goi Cuon (cold spring rolls) followed by Pho (noodle soup) with seafood rather than the traditional beef.

Seafood pho from Pho 236 in NewtownIf you’ve never had pho, you should run immediately to the closest pho restaurant and order a bowl (it doesn’t matter what time it is, pho can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner). Both Herman and Gerrit were struck by the delicious flavor, the freshness of the ingredients, and the feeling that you’ve eaten something really healthy. Just writing about it like this makes me want to return tonight, but I’m having dinner at Linda and Jane’s place so I’ll have to wait.

<edited>For those who want to know more about pho, Mai Pham, the owner of the Lemon Grass Restaurant and Cafe in Sacramento provides a complete history of the dish plus a recipe in this marvellous SF Gate essay.</edited>

Here, she discusses pho’s origins:

Some theorize it was the French who triggered pho, popularizing the use of bones and lesser cuts of beef to make broth. After all, in a society that wasted nothing, what was one to do with all the bones carved from biftecks? In fact, they believe perhaps it was first created when Vietnamese cooks learned to make pot au feu for their French masters. The name pho, they suspect, might have even come from feu. But others argue that while the French can take credit for popularizing beef, it was actually the Chinese who inspired the dish with ingredients like noodles, ginger and anise. Then there are still others who claim it was the Chinese, and the Chinese alone, who instigated this culinary wonder.

But regardless of the origin, Chinese or French or both, once at the stove, the Vietnamese were quick to interject their own ideas. They concocted an exciting dish, using ingredients inspired by their foreign rulers but customizing it to include nuoc mam, or fish sauce, the defining characteristic of the local cuisine.

In the 1930s, in part spurred by nationalistic sentiments, some Hanoi scholars wrote passionately about pho, a food that not only cleverly provided all the necessary nourishment in one convenient bowl, but one that also symbolically freed the Vietnamese. At last, the Vietnamese succeeded in their fight for self-determination; finally they were free to express themselves, if only through their pho.

<edited>Now I feel that in ordering seafood pho I haven’t had the authentic pho experience. I’ll make up my mind about that tomorrow. And if you take the time to read Mai Pham on pho, you won’t be able to resist trying a bowl.</edited>

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Those rolls look like they've been wrapped in skin - big patches of skin, carefully peeled from the back of one brother after a long day at the beach, but before your mother has had a chance to rub tomatoe in the burn...

Posted by Victor Zalakos on 1 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

In Seattle, I'm very fond of Than brothers pho (3 locations) -- they give you a small plate of cream puffs along with the noodles. This tempts you to order more for dessert, though of course you are full even when ordering the "medium" size bowl of noodles.

Posted by Anita Rowland on 2 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Anita, I'd definitely have to choose between the cold spring rolls and the cream puffs. I couldn't eat two other courses plus a bowl of pho. I'll see if cream puffs are on the menu at Pho 236.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 2 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I discovered a pho restaurant near home a couple of months ago. Since then, I've been annoying my friends trying to get them to go. Mmmmmm, yum!

Posted by Andy Chen on 3 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Noodle is my favorite food. I think its origin is Cantonese, not French.

Posted by Maurice on 16 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour