When it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, everyone says Pho! The hype about Pho has been going strong in the Viet community for the past 100 years, and never ceases to spread to the other parts of the hemisphere. Why do the Vietnamese love Pho so much? There may not be a solid answer for that, but one thing for sure, every Viet grows up eating Pho and the tradition has been passed through generations. There is no such thing like Pho – a favorited food, comfort food, street food, and soul food that reflects the way of life in Vietnam.
Everyone knows that Pho is a combination of beef/chicken, Pho noodle and aromatic broth. But how does the most authentic Pho taste like?
It’s widely acceptable that the Pho’s birthplace traces back to the Northern Vietnam during the French colonization, where people were inspired by French beef stew pot au feu. After the Geneva Agreement (1954), a minority of Northern Vietnamese migrated to the South and brought along their families’ Pho recipes. Today, Pho comes in many versions with adjustments of ingredients and flavours to local tastes. While there are many variations, there are always 3 core ingredients that every Pho recipes should follow: noodles, broth and aroma.
Image of bánh phở
First, the noodles must always be banh pho, a special kind of noodles made exclusively for Pho. Banh pho (or Pho noodles) is made from rice, in white color, wider and thinner than normal Chinese noodles. Banh pho is the only fixed ingredient in the dish while other elements can be varied.
Second, the broth is originally made from beef bones, but chicken meat can also be used. It takes 5 minutes for the seller to assemble a Pho bowl, but the time to cook the broth is ideally 10-15 hours at medium-low heat so that the bones have sufficient time to release all the good juices. Although there are slow cookers that help fasten the process, many Viet restaurants still stick to the original method of cooking the broth overnight. That’s the true art of Pho, the longer you wait, the better the flavour.
Image of Pho aroma
Finally, the aroma is the real start what makes Pho so unique. The most commonly used aroma are cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, ginger, coriander, onion. The ratio and techniques to cook this aroma are different from vendors to vendors, some of which are kept secret and only passed within the families. Hence, you will never expect to taste the same Pho from two separate vendors, as any slight changes of these aroma and seasonings can make a big difference.
The two most popular Pho versions are pho Hanoi (Northern Pho) and pho Saigon (Southern Pho). While the main ingredients remain the same, there are some differences regarding meat, garnishes, flavour and even the way to eat.
Pho Hanoi (cách present)
Pho Hanoi is considered as the authentic Pho that emphasizes greatly on salty broth and strong aroma. The broth is made from slow cooked bones knuckles. The meat is normally chicken or thin sliced beef that cooked to well-done. Hanoi people eat Pho with condiments such as spring onions, slightly crushed pepper, lime and chilli pickles.
On the other hand, pho Saigon comes with more variations and new add-ons. Chefs use sugar to add the sweetness to the broth. There is also more diversity in the choice of beef: medium-rare thin-sliced, tendon, shank or brisket. Some people would order a bowl of beef fat to add to their broth.
Dĩa rau giá + sauce basket in Pho Saigon
Herb is another inevitable part of pho Saigon. Bean sprouts, coriander and basil are used as condiments to eat along. Saigon restaurants always have a small basket of various add-ons: chilli and hoisin sauce, pickled garlic, fish sauce and raw chilli for people to add to their likings.
There has been an ongoing dispute whether which is the better way of Pho. However, Pho is a versatile dish that people can always get creative with. For every Vietnamese, the most authentic Pho is the one that most resembles to his mom or grandma recipes.
Instead of attempting to make the most authentic Pho, the chefs at Bumi Cafe harmonize two paths of northern and southern Pho and add their own twist. The Pho Fusion recipes is not made in one night. Indeed, it’s a process of getting inspired by grandma’s recipes from childhood, adjusting to Finnish taste and incorporating our creativity to the dish. There are seven elements in our Pho Fusion:
Chicken is used as the main base for broth as we prefer its subtle and light scent compared to the heavier smell of beef. For vegan Pho, we use mushrooms and root vegetable.
The complexity of traditional Pho aroma is simplified to less ingredients such as cinnamon, star anise, ginger and onion, all grilled carefully on the stove before being added to the soup pot to release the most of the fragrance.
Bumi’s Pho is served with a variety of julienned raw vegetables. The vegetable condiments are our signature twist of Pho, as we believe raw veggies will add natural sweetness to the broth.
Customers can select one or combination of these proteins for their Pho: shredded chicken breast, medium cooked beef slices and tofu and mushrooms.
Thai-basil, coriander, onions and a variety of herbs are added as enhancers.
We keep some traditional Southern Pho toppings: lime juice, crushed peanut, chilli and hoisin sauce.
The best time to eat Pho is immediately when the bowl is still hot. When cooler, the noodles will absorb the water and expand, making the broth more “wheaty”.
As the bowl arrives, grab the spoon and sip the broth first. Then, eat the noodles along with one slice of meat and a bit of soup, vegetable and herbs. Try to fit every bit of the ingredients in your spoon and that’s how you taste the most complete Pho in one bite.
Customize your Pho with lime juice, chilli and hoisin sauce. The sauce can be add directly to the soup, or used as dipping sauce for the meat. The more you eat, the more experienced you can play around with the toppings. The key here is to always have an open mind.
A final word, the idea of Pho can be overwhelming or intimidating at first to many people. But just give it a try in one typical -20 winter day and you will gradually love it like how the Vietnamese do.
January 18, 2017