A contribution to human happiness: Pho

Update: 15:35 | 12/12/2017
One day, as we were enjoying together some nem meat rolls in a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, my friend Francoise C., reminded me of this wise saying by Brilliant Savarin: “La découverte d’un mets nouveau fait plus pour le bonheur du genre humain que la découverte d’une étoile” (The discovery of a new dish contributes more to human happiness than that of a new star). She was not joking: it was a serious thought.
a contribution to human happiness pho The trees of Ha Noi
a contribution to human happiness pho The Dragon City which is no more

I reminded her that besides the aristocratic nem, Vietnam has made another contribution to the happiness of mankind: the popular and no less delicious phở (pronounced like the English ‘fur’). Foreign residents in Ha Noi just love it. Boat people now living in foreign cities do a thriving business serving it. Alas, in San Francisco, Frankfurt, Paris, Tokyo… patrons of phở serving stalls and restaurants are only tasting imitations. The real phở can be eaten in Vietnam, more precisely north Vietnam, more precisely still, in Ha Noi.

a contribution to human happiness pho
A bowl of phở. (Photo: Foody)

How is it served? The cook puts suitable portions of thin strips of rice paste in large bowls, and on top of them bits of boiled beef or chicken, slices of onion, bulbs of shallot with its green leaves. Into the bowls, he ladles boiling hot stock from a big pot in which are stewed meat, marrowbones, dried shrimp… the liquid being flavoured with ginger and nước mắm (fish brine). To this each will add various condiments according to taste: lemon juice, vinegar, slices of red pepper, ground black pepper, nước mắm…

Indeed, there is a wide range of phở: plain phở or phở nước (paste and stock), phở tái (served with parboiled or scalded beef), phở nạm (served with suety beef), phở xốt vang (served with beef stewed and flavoured with wine), phở xào (served with fried beef), phở áp chảo (served with beef quickly fried in a little fat with garlic).

When I was a child the best phở was served by itinerant vendors carrying everything they needed for their trade hanging from the ends of their shoulder pole. The writer Thach Lam sang: “An appetizing odour is wafted along the street coming from the boiling pot of broth. If the vendor is a truly good cook, the broth must be clear and tasty, the rice paste velvet soft, the suety beef crisp, not rubbery, the whole thing flavoured with lemon juice, hot pepper, shallot bulbs. A bowl of the stuff will give you a taste of paradise…” He pointed out: “A bowl of phở will provide an excellent snack, which can be eaten at every hour of the day by people of all walks of life, in particular factory and office workers.”

The writer Nguyen Tuan, a refined gourmet, has this to add: “For a bowl of phở to taste real good, the beef served with it must be boiled, not scalded or parboiled. Boiled beef is part of the savour of phở.”

Huu Ngoc

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