The State of Pho

The commodification of Vietnam’s national dish


Vietnam. 2017. Photograph by Pascal Mannaerts/Alamy.

You hear the refrain among many Hanoians: phở, the beloved national dish of Vietnam, is just not as good as it used to be. Why is this? Meat is plentiful, as are fresh vegetables, and the world’s spices are within easy reach. And yet phở is undeniably worse than it once was. The reason: phở has become formulaic. It’s half fast food, half nutritional ration. But people’s tastes have also changed. Consumers are increasingly familiar with foods from around the world. If the dining habits of Hanoians simply stopped at phở—well, that would be boring.

Some phở aficionados might freak out at my perceived insult. Boring? Phở, this exalted soup, is the soul and marrow of our nation. It’s universal, like curry, and it’s versatile—it’s satisfying in the heat or in the cold. You can eat it whenever your heart desires—the success of the fast-phở franchise Phở 24, with its family recipe of 24 ingredients, is proof. But what if the tongue suffers a numbing onslaught of phở? Could its familiar flavor lose its appeal among regular consumers?

Unlike some Vietnamese specialties that were once regarded as extravagant residues of the colonial era—the modern áo dài dress, French pastries, romantic prewar music—phở had long been plebeian, shabby; to be right, it had to be a little shady. And thus it remained for a whole century. But then came Phở 24, followed by Square Phở. The dish became more expensive and refined and was sold at phở shops that double as relaxing places to sit and be served. You can now buy all the things you were unlikely to get from shoulder pole-phở, furnace-phở, coal-phở or wood stove-phở—temperature control, hygienic surroundings, a suitable ambiance for a date, maybe even a restroom. My sister is relieved that she can now take foreign guests to taste Hanoi’s specialty dish without having to visit squat, damp shops with mismatched chairs, moldy walls and slimy stoves, not to mention a stream of invective from surly shop owners. But Phở 24 has no flavor, you say? What do Westerners know about phở? All they want is to try it. And since the idea is to treat them, let’s just take them to a place with air conditioning. Two bowls for less than VND50,000— about US$2.50—and everyone is happy.

• • •

In the early 2000s, a big controversy kept many customers away from the mom-and-pop phở shops: it was revealed that formaldehyde preservatives were being used in phở noodles to make them pliable and chewy. Some businesses seized on the scandal, creating a new crop of establishments that emphasized service and branding.

Most agree that Hanoi phở, in Northern Vietnam, is the nation’s best, and they’ve known that it’s best eaten on chilly winter mornings near dew-laden lakeside grass, the steam rising gently from the bowl. But, a few years ago, Phở Hiền—another chain like Phở 24—moved the epicenter of phở to the Trung Hoà intersection in Hanoi. It was packed every morning, often selling out by 9 a.m. The Trung Hoà intersection used to be in the suburbs, a semi-rural spot along the banks of the Tô Lịch River. Back then, it couldn’t compare to the lakeside downtown. But now, it’s a broad boulevard— the most beautiful in all of Vietnam. I had the chance to eat at Phở Hiền a few times, early in the morning or on days when I felt the urge to invite a few friends, mostly to prove that the New-Hà Nội-Phở lived up to the hype. As time went on, though, it got easier to eat at Phở Hiền—the lines were shorter and the food just wasn’t as good. Yes, the meat is tender, but the broth leaves me cold. If you were to go to the supermarket Metro and buy some imported Australian beef, it wouldn’t be as tender as Phở Hiền’s thin, rare steak. Real skill, when it comes to making phở, lies in cutting the meat against the grain to the perfect thickness. You can’t slice it too thin, as if you were trying to pass it off as a larger serving of beef. And if you poach it too long—as my mother overcooked it to kill any possible bacteria—then it’ll lose its flavor.

Today’s phở shops are a lot better than they were in past decades when beef was harder to source. And yet the broth is still a problem. It’s not unlike what’s happening with hot pot, another dish that’s now popular in Hanoi. With hot pot, all you need is a pot of boiling bone broth and a mix of meat, seafood and vegetables, and you’ll be satisfied every time. But once you’re done eating, you don’t quite remember anything distinguishable about its flavor. Especially since the broth’s flavor intensifies as the liquid is cooked off. And so, again, we long for phở.

Phở is phở. It stands alone. If a shop hangs a sign that reads “rice and phở,” then you know the phở won’t amount to much. And if the sign advertises a smorgasbord of plebeian rice, phở and fried dishes, don’t even bother going in.

• • •

Phở is said to have originated in the northern province of Nam Định, southeast of Hanoi, but it’s a matter of dispute. Frankly, I don’t care if it’s true. Nam Định phở is messy-looking, with its wide-mouthed bowl that allows the broth to cool too quickly, and its single slice of beef pounded thin, then minced. As if reacting to the declining quality of Hanoi’s phở, many clamored for “Nam Định homestyle phở.” A decade earlier, no one had ever heard the phrase, but today, it’s raging through Hanoi’s soot-blackened soup shops and high-flying franchises. What a shame, this careless bowl of phở, with its single piece of not-quite-whole, not-quite-sliced steak, with a broth that shares the common greasy flavor of so many dishes: MSG. It sells more than the phở made by Hotel Metropole chef Didier Corlou, who even has a book that teaches Westerners about Hanoi phở. This man has elevated the phở recipe to the level of theory, and even he can’t truly own it. In any case, we Vietnamese aren’t accustomed to eating the soup in a five-star hotel.

Phở is an emblem of the last century of Vietnamese life, a melange of different culinary traditions.

So, what is it that makes good phở good? Perhaps the criteria haven’t changed since Nguyễn Tuân laid them out in the mid-20th century. The noodles can’t be too soft, and they must be evenly white. The broth must be clear without a layer of grease. The taste must be sweet, of stewed marrow, and the subtle sulfurous scent must be of peanut worms and the burnt fragrance of roasted tsao-ko ginger. The slices of rare steak should not be too thin, still soft, and not too curled by the heat. All of it should be topped by minced onion greens, with just the right amount of peppercorns and chili added as spice. When you stir the bowl, the noodles shouldn’t be too bloated. The broth should still be hot when you finish the bowl, and the crisp, fragrant residue of brisket should cling to your tongue. The ideal recipe seems simple enough, and yet it’s not. There is some wisdom in how we use phở as a euphemism for an extramarital affair. If you eat “phở” a little, it’s tasty, and you crave it. But if you eat it so often that you neglect your “rice,” you get bored of it. Too much MSG, like a lover, is so sweet that it numbs your tongue.

There are any number of reasons why phở might not taste good. Is it because it mirrors the hectic, alienated lives we lead in modern times? Have we, as with our habits, allowed the value of phở to drop too sharply, the quality to slip so far that the dish has become insufferably bland? The golden age of phở is long gone. But maybe that’s ok. Maybe not everyone appreciates being verbally abused by rude shop owners. Even though most people don’t believe Phở 24 actually tastes good—what kind of phở has 24 spices, anyway? It’s phở, not Chinese medicine! But at least it’s clean, the service respectful.

A friend of mine was once invited to a posh costume gala. Everyone’s costumes, for whatever reason, had to start with the letter P. Of course, my friend chose phở. And, of course, she couldn’t actually make clothing out of phở noodles. So she wrapped a white cloth around her head—she really looked the part—then put her hair up with two wooden chopsticks and a little spoon. But she was worried that this phở would appear lukewarm. Her boyfriend had an idea: switch out the chopsticks for sticks of incense. She did, and her creation seemed to be simmering all night.

As its popularity grows, phở will likely be adapted throughout the world, sometimes taking on strange forms. This might not be such a bad thing. Phở is an emblem of the last century of Vietnamese life, a melange of different culinary traditions: Chinese noodles, fermented fish sauce from the Cham people and French beefsteak. But we, the Vietnamese, are the bowls. We hold it all together.


Nguyen Truong Quý

Nguyen Truong Quý is an award-winning author. His many books and articles focus on changing Vietnamese cultural identities in the modern world. He is a university lecturer, a painter and makes his home in Hanoi.

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