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What The Pho?

1. October, 2013

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What is Vietnamese pho?

By Michelle Warwicker & Anna-Louise TaylorBBC Food

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A dispute over the ownership of the name of a Vietnamese soup has been making waves. Just when did pho take off in the UK?

The flavoursome, aromatic rice noodle broth is dished out by street food vendors, specialty pho diners and any good Vietnamese restaurant worth its salt.

Fresh, healthy and tasty, the tangy stock, with fresh herbs, noodles and optional meat has ardent fans, and has almost conquered the UK by stealth over the past 10 years, as it’s cheap to produce, affordable for diners and delicious to eat.

“All of the spices like the star anise… they really blend into one unique flavour and then when you add all the herbs and everything it’s quite tangy,” says Vietnamese food writer Uyen Luu.

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“You squeeze in some lime so it’s really fresh, as well as quite autumnal.”

Pho has slowly infiltrated mainstream franchised cafes, is now sold in do-it-yourself kits in Waitrose and as a “premium pot noodle”, but suddenly Vietnam’s national dish has been thrust in to the spotlight.

A small south London Vietnamese restaurant called Mo Pho was handed a legal request to change its name. The Pho Vietnamese soup chain, owned by Stephen and Jules Wall, said it had trademarked the word “pho” as a name six years ago when it was something of a trailblazer and opened the first of its eight franchises.

Some wrangling on social media ensued (over whether a national dish can become a trademarked name) and the matter has since been settled, with both businesses keeping their names.

Vietnamese is suddenly finding new audiences, with street food vendors like Anh Vu and Van Tran, who produce banh mi baguettes with Vietnamese fillings, helping lift its profile.

Pho is actually pronounced “fuh” (rhyming with “duh”), rather than “fo”, and now can be found around the UK, not just in East London on Kingsland road, now known as “the Pho Mile”. The Pho chain is about to open a restaurant in Leeds.

After the Vietnam war, pho made its way to countries like France, the United States and Australia with Vietnamese refugees.

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pho ga

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Pho is actually pronounced ‘fuh’… rather than ‘fo’”

  • Take a look at BBC Vietnamese

It took some time, but Vietnamese food was embraced by the US in the 90s as relations between the countries improved, and in 2002 the Los Angeles Times named pho the “next Asian dish of the day”.

It’s thought that the soup originally developed with French influence – the Vietnamese didn’t eat beef before French colonial rule, which began in 1858. Vietnam became French Indochina in 1887.

Pho is thought to be originally from the northern city of Hanoi, and sold largely by street vendors, only becoming known in the south after the country’s revolution, when it divided in to North and South Vietnam in 1954.

Uyen Luu teaches people to make pho at a supper club in Hackney and has a recipe for beef pho in her new book My Vietnamese Kitchen.

She says: “The French brought a lot of ingredients over to Vietnam, including onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes.

 

“In the south, they use a lot of herbs and they have it slightly different than people from the north. But more or less, it’s a beef noodle soup, and it’s got special spices in it that makes it really unique.”

The spices include star anise, cinnamon, coriander seeds, fennel and charred onion and charred ginger.

Pho ga is a chicken version – chicken noodle soup, and the recipe can be adapted to a vegetarian one by making a vegetable stock.

“It’s sort of based on the French pot-au-feu (beef stew with vegetables) the casserole with oxtail… it’s very French inspired.”

As far back as the 12th Century, physicians were recommending chicken soup to combat a cold. Modern science has since found it can be soothing and anti-inflammatory. Ginger also adds piquancy and is good for digestion.

The Pho chain of restaurants says on its website: “Vietnamese food is fresh, healthy and low in fat. Pho exemplifies this cuisine. It’s full of fresh ingredients and high in vitamins and minerals – the perfect food to fight off nasty cold bugs, blast hangovers away and provide a healthy choice.”

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On the menu:

Pho tai: With sliced steak

Pho chin: With brisket

Pho bo vien: With beef meatballs

Pho ga: With chicken

Pho tom: With prawns

Pho chay: Tofu and mushrooms

Pho nam rom: With mushrooms

Pho is largely eaten as a breakfast dish in Vietnam, and while Uyen Luu says the British are not yet used to having a noodle soup for breakfast yet, she’s “sure it will take off very soon”.

“You can actually just have it anytime you want. But the reason you have it for breakfast is because it’s so spicy with all the fiery ingredients in it, it sort of wakes up the senses and it gives you a lot of energy for the day for your mind, your spirit and also your body.

“That’s why we have spicy things for breakfast.”

The Vietnamese prefer to eat pho out, and don’t make it much at home. But Uyen Luu says it is “actually quite easy to cook”.

“It’s a soup that really requires your attention, and how much love you give to it,” she says.

“You can have all the ingredients there and follow a recipe. But if you buy really good ingredients like good bones and cuts of beef or chicken then your stock’s going to be so much better… you have to sort of watch over it. It takes about four to five hours to make.”

But she warns, once addicted: “It could be like a lifetime’s work to master the broth.”

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