February 21, 2014 – The first bowls of pho appeared in the villages near Hanoi about a hundred years ago. Pho (the o is pronounced, as far as I can tell, like somewhere between the a in fat and the e in tepid) is basically beef broth, rice noodles, herbs and either beef or chicken. It’s likely that it originated as a variation on the French stew known as pot-au-feu during the days when Vietnam was a French colony.
In the first decade of the 20th century, street vendors carrying their kitchens attached to long poles across their shoulders sold bowls of pho, usually in the mornings and evenings. By around 1918 the first pho stand appeared in Hanoi, quickly followed by others. Pho rapidly became the favorite street food of Vietnam.
There are, of course, regional differences. Generally grouped around Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south, the variations revolve around the size of noodle, sweetness of the broth, and spiciness of the ingredients. It’s common in both north and south to provide on the side a small plate of basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, chili peppers, and lime wedges to be added at the diner’s discretion. Always there are sauces close at hand. Hoisin sauce. Fish sauce. Chili sauce. And a very dark liquid of which I was wise enough to add only a small amount to my bowl. That tiny addition provided heat sufficient to make the dish interesting without doing any real damage to my mouth.
I was meeting my son, David, for lunch at Pho Vietnam, a restaurant he has often visited but a new experience for me. I ordered spring rolls and egg rolls while I waited for him to arrive.
The spring rolls in their sticky wrappers of steamed rice paper were packed with noodles, cucumber, lettuce, mint and cilantro. Each came with a slice of chicken and a large shrimp. The very fine peanut sauce for dipping was a perfect contrast for the crisp vegetables.
But the egg rolls were even better. Rolled and wrapped tightly in wonton paper, stuffed with ground pork, carrots, taro, jicama and glass noodles, they were fried to a golden brown exterior and nicely chewy interior that allowed the mixed flavors to dance on the palate. A tip-top offering.
While David opted for a bowl of Thai noodles, I wanted to remain a purist on my first visit to the restaurant. I consulted with our young waitress who suggested pho tai nam. Noodles in broth with beef filet and flank steak.
The bowl in front of me was huge with a cloud of steam rising above it. The aroma was enticing; irresistible. Thin slices of beef (two kinds, she said), noodles, cilantro, parsley, green onions. All swimming in an aromatic broth exuding a flavor that was distinctive. Yet I couldn’t quite place it.
I asked the waitress what it was. She laughed. “It’s a secret.”
I ate more noodles; more beef; more broth. I told David I knew what it was.
“Cinnamon,” I told the waitress confidently.
She laughed. “No. It’s secret.”
As we were leaving the restaurant I made a final try.
“Tamarind. It’s tamarind, isn’t it?”
I could hear her musical laughter as I left, clutching the container of pho with its intoxicating aroma.
It’s tamarind. I know it’s tamarind.