Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pho Bo: The Difficulties Of A National Dish

A tour of Ho Chi Minh City’s vibrant restaurant scene would not be complete without sampling Vietnam’s unofficial national dish, beef noodle soup (pho bo). And what better place to try it than Saigon’s arguably most famous beef noodle joint, Pho 2000, where Bill Clinton slurped noodles 11 years ago when he became the first US President to visit the country since the end of the Vietnam War.

I’d heard a lot about the place, and wanted to see how its food compared with the other beef noodle shops I’d eaten in – from street stalls in steamy, drain-scourged alleyways to characterless, air-conditioned outlets with brightly-coloured branding and laminate menus.

The restaurant – which bizarrely Lonely Planet readers rank as the TOP visitor attraction in Saigon, and the 27th in the whole of Asia – overlooks Ben Thanh Market, a sweaty cavern of fake good stalls not far from where North Vietnamese tanks arrived 36 years ago to spell a humiliating defeat of US forces.

Its refreshingly short menu (I’ve never liked the Asian custom of offering huge tomes with pages of dishes – it’s an almost apologetic attitude that seems to say: “Hopefully you’ll like one of our meals...”) is pretty much just beef stew noodles (pho bo sot vang), shrimp spring rolls (cha gio tom), chicken curry with bread (ca ry ga), and beef ragout with rice (com ragu bo), but I was there for the beef noodle soup.

The meal came with breath-taking speed, and that was another part of the canteen feel. The kitchen had been ripped out and replaced with US security money for Clinton’s visit, and the owners had obviously decided to keep up the hygiene standards, because even though the Soviet-style white and beige walls and fittings needed a good revamp, the place sparkled. Even the spoons were wrapped in plastic.

It continues to be a favourite with visiting dignitaries and Vietnamese leaders, and has long cashed in on its Clinton credentials. “Pho For The President” the restaurant frontage boasts. It’s a strange advert given the devastation caused by America’s offensive in Indochina, and the strong, anti-US propaganda pumped out in the nearby War Remnants Museum (once named the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes).

But what is far stranger is why a restaurant that regularly finds itself in such high company, and was presumably picked out for Clinton to showcase Vietnam’s gastronomic excellence and noodle-fused national identity, is so spectacularly average. I mean the US president wouldn’t just take visiting foreign leaders down to his local burger joint would he - even if he wanted to spin an all-American, man-of-the-people image.

The beef stock was so insipid, it reminded me of the tins of cheap consommé my granddad used to buy when I was a kid. Traditionally, the stock should be boiled down marrow bones with scorched onions and ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fish sauce and yellow rock sugar. But clearly no-one bothers. It tasted like water from the hot tap that had had a Tesco beef cube dunked into it for a few seconds.

The paper-thin slices of onion, spring onion greens, and slices of slow-cooked brisket, cut against the grain and feathered to the point of falling apart, were tasty enough. But sadly there was no option to have the raw beef version (pho bo tai) or indeed oxtail, tendon, tripe or meatballs.

It was perfectly alright, but bland, and I can see why Clinton ordered the chicken noodle soup (pho ga). I mean what do you do when you’ve picked out all the meat, and you’re left with a mountain of rice noodles that are extremely dull in flavour and texture, without a decent broth to help them down? The word samey doesn’t cover it.

But it must have been a difficult choice for the Vietnamese government to make, back in 2000. Choosing the closest thing Vietnam has to a national dish is fraught enough, but what about the garnishes? Small potatoes you might think, but people get very worked up about the thorny issue of leafy accompaniments.

Purists in the north – from where the dish originated – like it unadulterated, with just meat, noodles and a well-made broth. But by the time it had moved southwards with the Vietnamese who fled Communism when the country was split into north and south in 1954, the dish took on a more flamboyant identity.

There were rumours from the south, then disquiet and head-shaking. There were tales that chefs had started to serve it with side plates of sliced fresh chillies, bean sprouts, thorny coriander, Thai basil, and lime segments. Others said it came with other foul abominations, like bowls of hoisin sauce and chilli ketchup (below) to mix into the soup – and that’s how it’s served at Pho 2000, and every other noodle shop I’ve tried in Saigon and Phu Quoc. But this herby frivolity doesn’t go down well in the north, where they are still true to the original.

So what a potentially explosive photograph it might be to see Clinton sipping papaya juice while scattering basil leaves and other horrors over what is after all a northern dish. The gaudy baubles of Capitalism or the no-nonsense, no leafy extras of Communism?

And what about upsetting the Americans by choosing a dish so heavily influenced by cheese-eating surrender monkeys? Food academics accept pho bo came from the Hanoi area in the early 1900s, but in usual pointy-headed style, that’s where agreement ends.

There is some debate about whether pho (rhymes with dough) was a corruption of the French word for fire (feu) when French colonialists introduced pot-au-feu to Vietnam. But there is no denying that Gallic cooking shaped the dish – or that the French got the Vietnamese to start eating cows.

Traditionally with the classic French stew, the cooking liquor is drunk separately as soup, and the meat is heavily padded out with vegetables (substitute noodles), so you can see the influence. But it is the tradition of making the broth with charred onions and ginger that truly separates it from other Asian cooking styles – a nod to the French method of adding blackened onions to stock.

There was no question that it was French. And that’s why when I arrived in Saigon, I had memories of France and rich, velvety stews and soups. Sadly, it wasn’t so. I suppose I’ll have to wait for Paris’ 13th arrondissement Chinatown district for that. Or go up north...


meemalee said...

Oh, that's sad about the insipid broth :(

I'm sure there are places that still take pride in their pho - just look at the ones frequented by Sticky Rice or (previously) Noodlepie.

Your post is ironic timing, considering I just blogged a recipe for Pho Bo.

Joshua said...

It's all about the north of Vietnam for pho.

Lennie Nash said...


Love your pho bo recipe - and the pic is great too. Much better than Ramsay's! When do you get your series?

All best,


Lennie Nash said...


Damn right! Everyone keeps talking about how much better the pho is up north.