by James Corwell, CMC.
The earliest memories I have of Vietnam were televised in black and white through a hardwood Zenith console. It was at the end of the Nixon era with massed troops and helicopters exiting the country. Somewhere between now and then, I lost the era-defining phrases of a thousand mile stare, casualties of war, in the name of democracy and, of course, M-16 for more pleasant memories of Southeast Asia. Today Vietnam conjures a country filled with lush scenery, and, for me, such exotic flavors as the mellow flavor of a good fish sauce, or catfish cooked in caramelized sugar. But the one dish that has become a symbol for Vietnamese cuisine and a comfort staple in my fast-paced diet is pho or as it is sometimes referred to as Vietnamese noodle soup.
Geography of Vietnam
The long narrow country of Vietnam is said to be shaped like two rice baskets carried at either ends of a bamboo pole. The analogy represents the two rich rice growing regions of the North and South and the great cities of Hanoi and Saigon. The northern city of Hanoi is considered the birthplace of pho.
Complexities of pho
Pho is a complex soup made of rich gelatinous broth, long rice vermicelli and a few cuts of sliced beef, such as a fatty brisket, braised tendon or tender tripe. Served on a separate plate is a mound of ivory colored bean sprouts, rau ram (similar to basil), sliced chilies, sawtooth herb (tastes similar to cilantro) and lime. These are incorporated into the broth adding texture, interest and spicy flavors. Despite accommodating requests for variations, purists have all of the above with raw slices of beef that are still cooking in the hot broth when it’s served.
History of pho
To fully appreciate pho, one needs to understand its relatively current history. Pho developed out of war or at least domination. Imperialism was the fashion in the mid 1800s for raw materials were needed to fuel the rise of the industrial revolution. To the French, Vietnam, and a host of other colonies, were little more than a tenant bound to French rule. Stories of Michelin tire and rubber farms at that time would rival the worst atrocities of antebellum South.
Where there were Vietnamese servants, they would have recognized the love affair the French had for all foods, especially beef. Servants were taught to cook to the tastes of those they serve. In particular, “Pot au Feu”–a delicate French dish made various ways, but mostly with beef that is sliced and served with a variety of vegetables and a delicious broth. Thus began the Vietnamese adaptation of classic French cooking that forever changed the culture of a people who rarely ate their valuable work animals and who, as Buddhist, had strong vegetarian beliefs.
It was not until after WW II that pho migrated south to take on a whole new look and appeal. Nazi occupied France deeded all Vietnamese ports and airfields to their Japanese allies, which dissolved any remaining French authority in the country. After the Japanese surrendered, the communist party led by Ho Chi Minh was the only force at the time with any true organization. The attack launched on Hanoi was met with little opposition and soon the city fell to Communist rule.
Ho Chi Minh’s political ideology was not enough to take over the whole country and succeeded in dividing the North and South. Many escaped south to Saigon bringing with them the concept of pho. In later years Saigon would be described as the Paris of the Orient, and as irony would have it, pho found a perfect fit.
The influence of the south over the north profoundly changed the flavor of the soup. The purest Northern version was simple and subtle. But now pho had evolved, blossoming with flavored broth of charred onion and ginger and star anise, inexpensive beef cuts, handfuls of rice noodles, delicate vegetables, citrus and heat.
At my favorite noodle shop, I sit at a table were the chair stretches as high as my shoulders and is made of stiff black lacquered wood that hurts my back. The small, slip-cover turquoise cushion is rather slippery and uncomfortable. Images of mass produced craftsmanship run a muck and an and image of faux Rolex for $10 flash in my mind. The back lit picture of mountainous landscapes, ancient shrines and serene beaches reminds me of an old and forgotten time.
My army helmet size bowl of pho arrives. I pick up chopsticks and a spoon from the table container that houses many more for subsequent patrons. I plunk down a mound of bean sprouts, pick in a few herbs, some chili, a squeeze of lime and good dousing of fish sauce. These are all the works necessary to slam my next pho fix and it only costs $8.95.
Pho intrigues my pallet, my memories as boy and as a chef who needs to connect with a world greater than myself. This soup, a twentieth century crucible, was cast from an alloy of French and Asian cultures, from an imperialist era stoked by industrial motives. Its place now rests in the hearts of local street stands and cafes around the world. It has become the poster child for discovering new Asian flavor profiles, but pho is perhaps better represented as a peoples’ collective will to maintain their own identity in the face of adversity.
About the Author: Chef James Corwell is the culinary genius behind Tomato Sushi. An Atlanta native, Corwell carries the rare professional designation of ACF Certified Master Chef. He was previously chef at the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, Napa Valley, California; Le Foret, New Orleans; and Haddingtons, Austin. He was voted best new chef by New Orleans Magazine in 2010.