Below is text from a booklet written by Didier Corlou, former executive chef of the Sofitel Metropole hotel and current chef/owner of Verticale restaurant in Hanoi. Published in 2003, the booklet came from a series of seminars organized by Chef Corlou and the European Commission to Vietnam to discuss the origins of pho noodle soup. Here's how the booklet is organized:
- Introduction - by Frederic Baron, Delegation of the European Commission to Vietnam
Art - Didier Corlou
- Pho soup recalls my childhood's flavor - Cultural meanings and emotional attachments to pho
- Portable Earthenware Stoves of Street Hawkers - French connection to pho
- Pho Recipe - by Didier Corlou
- Afterword - by Didier Corlou
This document is presented online with the permission of Didier Corlou.
This booklet was devised as means of expressing his profound feelings of friendship by Didier Corlou, executive chef of Sofitel Metropole Hanoi; a lover of Vietnam, its culture and its cuisine.
Pho soup, like many other myths, has a mysterious beginning. Historians and fervent defenders of Vietnamese gastronomy have tried to penetrate the mystery of the arrival of this soup, considered for a long time to be the national dish of the North. The cuisine, like many other cultural aspects of a nation, is subject to evolution and it has grown richer and stronger after having contact with neighbors and visitors.
The question raised during the press conference organized by Sofitel Metropole Hanoi and the Delegation of European Commission at the end of 2002, turns around the origin of 'Pho'. Is this soup an original Vietnamese creation or an adoption of some foreign culinary blend, which has been adapted and integrated into the Vietnamese culture? The answer? No one, for certain knows.
Although, the first conference couldn't give out any definitive answer to the question; please feel free to express your own ideas and thoughts on the origins.
Many thanks to Didier Corlou and to Nguyen Dinh Rao, President of Unesco Club of Gastronomy.
Chief of the Delegation of the European Commission to Vietnam
To have steaming bowl of Pho, crouching on a stool a tightly-packed shop, crowded with customers is an art in itself. You order arrival, a bowl of rare or well-done beef Pho, with or without onion, and of course, no seasoning. A few minutes later, the Pho will be served at your table. The ritual begins, squeeze on some lemon, add chilies and pepper, then mix the soup with chopsticks; bring the bowl level with your mouth and start to swallow it while drinking the bouillon with a porcelain spoon.(metal spoons are not recommended as they give a cold taste at the mouth)
It is not advised to leave fresh noodles standing, they should be eaten within 5 minutes as they tend to swell up and lose their texture. After finishing your Pho, pay for it on your departure, then take the traditional toothpick and move to the tea shop next door for a cup of green tea or coffee. Now, you are ready to start the new day.
In the past, Pho was mostly served in the morning and when Vietnam experiencing difficult periods, Hanoians only had the soup on Sundays or when they were sick. It cost 3 cents (xu) a bowl in those days. Nowadays, people have Pho any day, at any time of the day, especially in the evening. Although lifestyles and habits have changed Pho remains the hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine, despite the competition of other delicacies, such as banh cuon (steamed rice pancake stuffed with chopped pork).
Pho, the best soup of the world, the representative of Vietnamese gastronomy, is equivalent to paella in Spain or the double pancake of Brittany. It is a unique dish, served with white noodles, consommé, sliced meat, fragrant herbs, grilled onion, added with nuoc mam (fish sauce) and perfumed with lemon, chilli, herbs and spices.
To us, it is worthy of its title of the best soup of the world because of its history. Its identity was created and developed throughout different periods, from the colonization to the war years and the US embargo. Today, it has become the pride of a nation. Popular and economic, Pho can be an enjoyed by almost anyone, of any social range or status. This dish is known to be rich in vitamins and plays an important role in the staple diet, health and the morale of the Vietnamese people.
Pho is regarded as an everyday soup, which is not served during parties, weddings or other festive occasions. And when someone is not seen to be taking an interest in festive fare, you can almost guarantee they will be found some time later at the local Pho stall devouring their daily dose of their favorite dish.
Hanoi's streets are the soul of the city and people do say Pho is synonymous with Vietnam's quaint capital. While it is served in a great number of restaurants in Saigon, Paris and New York, somehow it does not hold meaning as eating it in Hanoi. As we know, it may be great to enjoy cheese fondue in the Alps, but for sure, it will be not taste the same in Hanoi and vice-versa. And for a bowl of Pho, there is only on place to go - Hanoi!
Pho can be cooked with fish, duck, and vegetables. In the country-side, people also make Pho with pork, even the pig's hearts or kidneys. What you make it with is not important, after all, Pho will still remain what it was before; the pride of Hanoi's people.
Corlou, Executive chef
Sofitel Metropole Hanoi
The speeches published below are extracted from the press conference "Pho - Vietnam's Heritage", organized in Hanoi on November 29th 2002 at the offices of the Delegation of the European Commission:
Its birth certificate is packed full of question marks; where does Pho come from? When was this soup, together with nem (spring rolls), symbol of Vietnamese gastronomy, brought into the world? Nguyen Dinh Rao, a decidedly determined seventy-year-old man and president of Unesco's Gastronomy Club in Hanoi expresses his opinion on this subject; more than an opinion, he insists he knows Pho's true origins. He says that the birth place of Pho is in Nam Dinh city, which is situated in the southern Red River delta. Its birth's date? Beginning of 20th century he claims confidently "when a big industrial zone for textile was established there".
Rao continues: "Nam Dinh's population included, in those days, new city dwellers, workers, salaried employees, officials, as well as French and Vietnamese soldiers. All of them required a dish which was less "rustic" than the traditional soups of the delta's farmers, like chao (rice soup) or bun (fresh noodles made of rice)".
This mixed population turned to its culinary roots to "invent" Pho. A novelty which was simmered in the pot of traditions. "It perpetuates the traditional flavor" - Rao explains "Thus, the bouillon, made of bone and prawn, rich in amino-acid and sweetly perfumed, is inherited directly from old coastal roots of our civilization. Regarding popular fresh and soft rice noodles, called banh pho, cooked in vapor, they are definitely from Vietnam. Finally, to satisfy a modernized demand and to meet the taste of European people, they add beef among other ingredients, only once per year, in occasion of village's festival. It replaces aquatic products, like crab or shellfish." Rao concludes: "Pho combines a cultural interference and local ingredients, the traditional flavor blending with European taste. The whole blend creates a universal soup".
Poet Vu Quan Phuong shows himself more pliant in his views: "They may be right when saying pho comes from Nam Dinh; I often see the signboard "Nam Dinh recipe" in front of pho shops. However, the famous writer Tu Xuong, who was very devoted to Nam Dinh, fails to mention anything about Pho in his writings. Pho sustains certainly the influence of different countries, but its Vietnamese soul still remains. That's why, I believe, the most important thing is that Pho makes up half of Vietnamese national pride; the second half is the popular war."
More important than different questions related to the origin and the culinary crossings of Pho, which prevailed throughout its birth, is the acknowledgement of Pho as an element of Vietnam's heritage that nourishes the national pride. "We understand the Vietnamese culture is highly discerning to other foreign cultures" said Dang Huu Hung, deputy editor in chief of Sciences and Fatherland magazine, "Thus, there are interferences with French and Chinese cultures. But we also know how to "Vietnamese" a Pho soup. Today, Pho becomes a Vietnamese soup, which makes us proud, that is more important than the origin of Pho".
Furthermore, Pho's taste and the ingredients to make it have varied and developed with time. At the beginning, Pho is cooked with hard-boiled beef cut into nice slices, then also with rare beef poached in the bouillon (pho bo tai), with chicken (pho ga) and even with pork (pho lon) during hard times in the war. Some people don't hesitate to evoke the "secrets" of making Pho soup. An old Pho shop regular cites 3 secrets: the first one is the cleanliness, the bowl in which pho soup will be served should not have any smell, the second, is the way to prepare the meat, and the third, lies in the bouillon, its ingredients and the right moment to integrate them in the water.
Regarding the bouillon, Mr. Huu Bang, Director of Military Theatre also shares his opinion. He recalls that, when he was a child, a bowl of pho, without bouillon, cost one cent (xu), while the one with bouillon was 3 cents. "The bouillon should be simmered from the day before, in order to extract all of vitamins from the bone and the meat should be boiled together with the bone, both of them being plunged in cold water at the start of cooking. ".
Thus, is it right that a "standard" for Pho to be defined, giving exact details on quantity of herbs and condiments, the way to prepare the bouillon and perhaps, eventually leading a label guaranteeing the quality of Pho ? Poet Vu Quan Phuong adds the following: "We have to protect Pho on the one hand and give it a free development on the other. Pho is the soul of Vietnam and when I enjoy a bowl of pho, I recall firstly, the flavors of my childhood".
Synthesis of journalist Franck Renaud
Today, pho is served in some restaurants as a specialty or in some small provision shops set up at night on the pavement. However, Pho was originally sold by roving street hawkers who walked around the city carrying on their shoulders a wooden stick holding a bucket on either end. The bucket in the back contained a bouillon's pot and an earthenware stove. According to Nguyen Dinh Rao, the name of "Pho" comes from the appellation of earthen stove, called "coffre-feu" in French.
This stove related directly to the origin of Pho word. When the customers saw the hawker, they would shout "Eh! Feu!" and receive a response "Oui! Feu!". These appellations, by continuous repetition, may have lead to the name of the pho, which is familiar with us today. Some people believe that the word pho comes from from a Chinese character or even inspired from a real French dish, for example "le pot au feu." …
Concerning this subject, Didier Corlou, pointed out the resemblance between the French dish mentioned above (le pot au feu) and Pho soup. He makes the connection between grilled onion in the French dish and grilled shallot and old ginger on plate in Vietnamese "Pho" to give it color nice taste - as these spices keep the whole of contents concentrated when being grilled.
- "Pho" noodles (Banh pho): 1kg
- Beef bone: 1kg (approximately)
- Beef rump or shoulder: 400g
- Beef fillet (optional): 150g
- Shallot (Hanh kho): 20g
- Old ginger (Gung gia): 30g
- Star anise (Hoa hoe): 1 unit
- Cinnamon stick (que): 3cm
- Black cardamom (Thao qua): 1 unit
- Lime (Chanh): 3 units
- Spring onion (Hanh la): 100g
- Fresh herbs: sweet mint (rau thom), coriander (rau mui) and saw coriander (rau mui tau)
- Nuoc mam, fresh chili, salt, pepper grounded.
1/ Wash the bone and the meat. Drain the piece of beef fillet with kitchen absorbent paper.
2/ Grill the ginger and shallots. Dry the star anise and the black cardamom, slightly crush them and put them in a piece of clean cloth together with a piece of cinnamon stick, tie well.
3/ Stir the stock with 3 liters of cold water, put the beef bone and cook on high heat. When it comes to the boil, skim. Add the spices in the cloth and the piece of beef rump. Season with nuoc mam and salt. Simmer on low heat for about two and a half hours. Take the spices out when the stock has become fragrant.
4/ Take out the beef bone and meat. Hang the meat and drain it well. Keep the stock simmering and check the seasoning.
5/ Slice the herbs, spring onion and the beef.
6/ Blanche the noodles in boiling water for 2 seconds, divide it in individual bowls. Arrange the meat in each bowl, onion and herbs on top. Pour the boiling stock.
7/ Serve immediately accompanied with a little lemon juice, sliced chili or chili sauce.
For the Pho with rare beef: slice the raw beef fillet before the serving, marinate it with a little ginger, put it in a ladle and poach it in the stock. Pour the meat and stock in each bowl on the noodles and herbs.
In certain Pho restaurants, some spuncules (sea worm) are added while making the stock to make it more tasty.
The voracious appetites and pleasure in gastronomy of my colleagues and friends, Frederic Baron, Franck Lafourcade, Nguyen Dinh Rao, Franck Renaud, Nguyen Thanh Van, Nguyen Thi Kim Hai, Dang Duc Tue and Jean-François Mallet, all helped me to realize my dream of producing this booklet. This soup, popular and royal at the same time, remains the chief representative of Vietnamese cuisine. It continues to develop and some grand French chefs have already used the basis of cooking Pho to create frogs' legs soup with fresh peppermint. It means that this cuisine is made for traveling and for a simple pleasure, which is what I would define as gastronomy.