The History and Evolution of Pho: A Hundred Years' Journey  

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chuynh
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Hi Van: Thanks for considering this article as a source of your research. As in any good research work, you should always practice due diligence in your independent research and fact checking.

This is a subject matter that is dear to my heart, and clearly historical documentation is very much lacking. A complete research must include visits to Nam Dinh in North Vietnam, and that has not happened yet. I have myself spent many hours in my own research, but I will admit that there are many more questions and clarifications that I'd still like to pursue, personal resources permitting.

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latiesha
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what is your national food in Vietnam???

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chuynh
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@latiesha: It is difficult to specify and for everyone to agree on a national food for a country. I guess one definition might be a dish that is popular within a country and also well-known outside of that country. And it obviously must include the unique way it is prepared and served, the indigenous ingredients that it contains, or the tradition that it represents, or all of the above. For Vietnam, pho would be one as it is unique to our country, but then there are numerous other dishes that are also unique and popular in Vietnam as well.

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sebcolin
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Hello,
your article is very interesting but there are so many mistakes about history of this vietnamese soup.
1)Alexandre de Rhodes hasnt As a teacher at Inalco (history of Asia) in Paris, i would like to tell you that the pho has nothing to do with " le pot au feu".Pho has nothing to do with fire (feu). Pho means rice noodles in vietnamese! If you read vietnamese novels and poems, you can find traces of this pho from the 14th century before Alexandre de Rhodes and missionnaires came to Vietnam.
Since then it has evoluted. And the more sophisticated is the pho you find in the south. The northern pho is very simple and you eat only in the north. The southerners add different herbs and sauce that brings to this soup so many tastes. The southern pho is the one that you can eat all around the world today!

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chuynh
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@sebcolin: Thanks for leaving your comments. I wouldn't characterize the article to have "so many mistakes" as you described. I'll address or clarify the points as follows.

Your first point is not quite clear about Alexandre de Rhodes and the word feu. Did you try to link the 2? If so then maybe you have misread the point. Alexandre de Rhodes was mentioned because he was the major influence to initiate the conversion of the Viet language from Chinese-like characters to Latin script, or Vietnamese alphabet. He had not much to do with feu or pho.

With respect to feu, I don't think I indicated anywhere that pho is fire, or pho has something to do with fire. But then most cooking do use fire. And especially when it comes to pot of feu and pho, they are both simmered over fire for a long time. So the connection/similarity clearly exists.

The point is the word "pho" may be an adaptation, a corruption, or an alteration of "feu" with traditional Vietnamese accent given to it. It's pretty much like "xe tăng" (the tank) for the battle field vehicle, or "nhà băng" (the bank) for the place where people keep their money. These are just a few of the numerous examples of western words being adapted by Viet people to conveniently describe things that don't exist in Vietnam at the time they were introduced. I don't doubt we Viet may have had rice noodle banh pho going way back before Alexandre de Rhodes. In fact we have so many varieties of rice noodles to be proud of. I'm not a reader of Viet novels and poems, but would love to check them out if you can provide sources or references. I would postulate that they may have been a distant cousin of "hủ tiếu" due to Chinese influence, where instead of using Chinese egg noodles, we used rice noodle in our hủ tiếu.

To recap in one paragraph: the connection points being made are as follows: we had rice noodle (maybe for a long time), and we may already have had something like hu tieu, then a Frenchman converted Chinese-like characters to Viet alphabet, then the French brought over pot au feu, which we may have liked the way it's made with beef parts, so we created pho or modified hu tieu to make something called phở. The theory is, without those events mentioned, we may not have pho today.

On your point of southern pho being around the world today, I do strongly agree. Obviously, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the people who left Vietnam were mostly from the South (including Northern Vietnamese who fled to the South in 1954.) And what they brought with them was the Southern style of pho. I will clarify this point in the article. Thank you for your input.

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Ly-Huong
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Hi Cuong,
It's been a while since I visited this page and didn't see your question about thit tai until now. My maternal family is from Nam Dinh which is considered by the Vietnamese government to be the birthplace of pho (Hanoi is the birthplace of pho restaurants which were created by migrants from Nam Dinh). In my blog post (link below), I recount a different, non-French genealogy for pho with links to my research (I am a research analyst and I was trained as an anthropologist). I mention the tradition in Nam Dinh of slaughtering trau/water buffalo for feasts, a tradition shared with other ethnic minority tribes that were not Francophiled (in other words, eating trau is a tradition that pre-dates French colonization). With all due respect, this truism that keeps getting repeated to justify a French influence that "Vietnamese do not eat trau because they are sacred work animals", is absolutely FALSE, an urban legend that rural people have not had the opportunity to refute. I really do wish we still had the photos of when my ong ngoai returned to Nam Dinh in the 90s and they slaughtered trau to feast him; they were very similar to the pictures from the Ba-Na tribe in slaughter and preparation though not in ritual (no dancing in Nam Dinh).

Thit tai is not primarily for pho. To believe that is to ignore/disrespect the Viet ancestral foodways and cultural history that pre-date French occupation. In Nam Dinh, thit tai is a dish served on special occasions after the trau is slaughtered. I explain the method of slaughter and preparation of thit tai in my blog post. Thit tai is served with a sauce made of tuong cu da, thinh, me (sesame seed), and ot. Thit tai is only secondarily used for pho as leftovers when the bones are cooked the next day. My grandfather revived this tradition in San Diego and his former parish Holy Spirit--which has a lot of people from Nam Dinh--now sells thit tai regularly as a fundraiser. Meaning they slaughter a cow and prepare it in the traditional manner. I don't even think they bother to make & sell pho because that was never the purpose of slaughtering trau/cow, it was just a by-product.

http://realfoodrealpho.blogspot.com/2013/04/real-food-real-pho.html

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chuynh
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@Ly-Huong: Thanks for your input. I can tell you are very passionate about setting things right, and I totally appreciate such passion. In the thick of passion, however, it is very easy to lose track of the larger picture. For me, seeing the forest first before paying attention to the trees is very important. So I'll clarify some of the points here.

Granted, there are many inaccuracies out there on the Internet about phở that deserve correction or at least a counterpoint. This is one main reason why I created lovingpho.com in the first place; so I totally understand the intent of your article. But first let's leave aside what you call the "mythos" of the French connection or lack of understanding of Viet history for a moment, and just look at the reference to the "slaughtering of cows" or the lack of it in my article above. This statement has more to do with illustrating the point that, in general, beef is an expensive ingredient in Vietnam and many could not and still cannot afford it in their daily diet. It's just like saying "everyone loves sushi in Japan" or "Viet people like eating dog." Now you and I know these are not true, and the meaning of the statement needs to be taken into account within the context of the subject matter being discussed. I can see how some reader may take my statement too literally, so I just added an editorial note to clarify it. The main points of the article stay intact however.

Secondly, I don't think I ever wrote anything remotely related to "Vietnamese do not eat trau because they are sacred work animals." I'm not sure where this statement comes from, and don't think it helps solidify your point.

In the same vein (no pun intended,) your reference to thịt tái (sliced rare beef) is kind of puzzling to me. I don't think I have ever insisted that thịt tái is primarily for pho only, so I'm not sure where your statement "To believe that is to ignore/disrespect the Viet ancestral foodways and cultural history that pre-date French occupation" come from or has anything to do with this article.

Thirdly, con trâu (water buffalo) is not the same as con bò (cow.) In your comment and your blog post, you merge the line of difference between the two or at least you seem to use trâu and bò interchangeably to make your point. I think this is not a fair use to make an argument. In Vietnam, the water buffalos are used mainly for working the fields, while the cows can be used to work the fields and to provide food. Oops, I just made another generalization. But again it's to make a point.

There is no doubt trâu bò and other animals are slaughtered during special events, rituals and celebrations. But that's exactly the point: they are for the special occasions, not an everyday occurrence.

By the way, I don't want to be political about it and lovingpho.com is never about politics, but I strongly disagree with your statement of "American occupation in 1954" in your post. We are creatures of opinions, and as much as I admire your knowledge on the subject matter of pho in Nam Định, I find this one a little off-base and off-reality.

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Trang
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This is such a wonderful article !! I came across one of the most exciting article I have ever read !! I'm vietnamese myself but I do not know most of the stuff you mention above ( What a shame 🙂 but thanks to this, I learned many new things today and discover this wonderful blog. It is true that to a purist and Pho connoisseurs, the south Pho literally taste like hell. The southerner put way too many sugar in every of their dishes, and that, include Pho. Pho in the States taste like trash to me... as a Hanoian, it taste nothing like the Pho I had back home, and sometimes I came across menu that have Seafood pho, I'm just completely speechless. Not to mention the thickness of the noodle is different too. To me, if one hasn't tried the North Pho, then they have not yet eaten the real thing 🙂 but let's be honest, the North Pho is way better!

p/s: your writing style is very admirable. I would love to write like you someday.

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chuynh
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@Trang: Thank you for the comments. You sound like a pho purist and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, without purists, who knows what will happen to Vietnamese pho right? Also I'm totally with you on the seafood pho thing.

I must say though, the Southern style pho was what started this wave of pho popularity around the world in the first place. Without Southern Vietnamese refugees, I doubt if pho can become as popular as it is today outside of Vietnam. Vietnamese from South Vietnam were the ones taking pho to America and to other parts of the world back in 1975, and many of the subsequent generations don't understand this. The reality is it makes total sense that Southern pho is growing strong, and most Americans do like this pho because they "grew up" with it in America.

I do like the Northern style pho myself. But as a restaurateur and a pho consultant, I'd have to say that the Southern style pho has much more mass appeal. The Northern pho needs some serious marketing before it comes to anywhere near the volume the pho from the south is doing. Still, I don't think it can unseat what's already considered the Vietnamese pho that's served in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries.

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fero
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hi
I personally do not think that Pho is from Hanoi, if you go anywhere in Hanoi or northern vietnam and you ask them where Pho bo(beef) came from... they would say Nam Dinh... but there is no historical evidence about this...
Also be careful about adaptation of words . Northern Vietnamese do not use "nha bang" they use ngan hang.... that word is southern word.
I personally do not think pho comes from french word. I know that vietnamese people have adapted some words but only for inventions what french people brought into Vietnam such as cars, pate, french etc... but what you have researched is quite interesting! However, the most interestingly is that France have influenced mostly central part of vietnam... thats why there are many students studying french in Hue or people who can speak french yet Southern vietnam influenced by the U.S but nothern vietnam ? i have no idea... french were there, chinese were there as well..

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chuynh
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@Fero: Very interesting viewpoints. With respect to where pho came from, it's probably true it was Nam Định which is about 50 miles from Hanoi. For a global audience especially back in 2009, North Vietnam and Hanoi were probably more recognizable than Nam Dinh. In 2013 and 2014, in a few conversations threads above, I did mention that Nam Dinh should be the place to visit to learn more about pho. I think, like in any product and market, if I have something good to sell, I'd take it to where the big money and large market is. In the case of pho, if it actually initiated in nam Dinh, then I would take it to Hanoi, or maybe some entrepreneurial Hanoians visiting Nam Dinh took it back with them. It's time for me to update a few sentences in the article.

With respect to word adaptation, Vietnamese language actually has at least 2 forms, one of casual usage and the other, more formal and classical chữ Nôm or chữ nho. To me Northern Vietnamese use more of the formal/traditional words and Southern Vietnamese use more of the casual variety in everyday communication. In your example, “nha bang” is actually the casual type and "ngan hang" is the more formal form, Chinese-based chữ Nôm used in all places.

But even more importantly, one must also consider the strong fact that, until very recently, North Vietnam has not much influence from the outside (much like North Korea now) and South Vietnam specifically Saigon was the hotbed of culture, business and educational influence and exposure from Western ways. Saigon was even called "Pearl of the Far East" or "Paris of the Orient" or some combination thereof before 1975. So to me it makes total sense that most Hanioans say "ngan hang" while most Saigonese say "nha bang" in the street.

There is no question about Chinese influence which is still everywhere in the Vietnamese language today. With respect to your point about "many students studying french in Hue or people who can speak french" in Central Vietnam, I think it may be true today or in some cases but not always before. French was the "official" second language or (third, depending on how you look at languages in Vietnam) since the French came in and even during the Vietnam War when English was introduced in mass. Most Vietnamese (North, South, Central) did speak French fluently including myself and many people I know. I remember many people including myself attempting to learn English as the second foreign language in school. And after 1975, France was one of the most popular places for refugees to request to go.

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Jeff
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I want to use this article for an assignment I have, but what's the source??

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chuynh
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@Jeff: Thanks for your inquiry. You can refer to this article or quote a part of it, as long as you cite and attribute to LovingPho.com and Cuong Huynh as the original source. I wrote this article based on my own knowledge and research, and I'm not interested in listing out all references at this time. Thanks again for your request.

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Tuan Tran
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"The focus of pho bac is on the taste of its clear and simple broth."

"The main ingredients in pho bac are the rice noodles and the thinly sliced rare beef cooked quickly in the hot broth."

This is wrong. The 2 sentences do not belong to the same paragraph. There's no way you can have clear broth with rare beef unless clear as mud is what you meant by "clear." The main protein ingredients in pho bac is brisket. That's all. I suggest you read this well written article to get an idea. http://www.lasanmossard.org/thegioiinternet/2012/nguoimepho

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chuynh
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@TUAN TRAN: Regarding your comment "The 2 sentences do not belong to the same paragraph". I'm the author of this post so of course I can include these sentences in the same paragraph. That aside, I think you're missing the point about clear pho broth. The clarity of the broth is only a requirement when it's still in the pot. It's a sign of a good quality soup stock being made. Needless to say, once served in a bowl with other things added and mixed in, anyone would agree that it's not realistic and reasonable to demand the broth to remain clear right? Hope this clears it up for you, pun intended.

The referenced article is an interesting read, but it's from the perspective of a single person. For this reason while I respect its points and passion, I wouldn't consider it a leading authority on pho.

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Tuan Tran
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@Cuong: Yes you are the author so you can include them but that does not make it right. Again, we are talking about Pho Bac here and being Pho Bac, there's NO other things added in. Pho Bac is served with only onion and ngo. There's no hoisin sauce, sriracha, basil added in after. You eat it as it's served.

Another thing about rare beef is that besides making the broth looks like sewage water is that it alters the favor profile of the broth. The broth is a delicate balance between body and flavor. You get the body from the bones and you get the flavor from the meat. The ratio between bones and meat is very important because it gives the broth its distinct goodness. That's why real pho bac should and must be cooked with bones that has been scraped off clean of meat lest it affects the delicate balance of the broth .

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chuynh
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@TUAN TRAN: Thanks for the additional detail about pho Bac. You definitely have some extreme and narrow viewpoints. I've never had someone describe pho broth with rare beef looking like sewage water in a serious conversation.

Not sure how you came about the information in the rest of your post but there are some major issues with them as well. I may address them in the future, but for now, I won't give any rebuttal unless someone specifically requests one.

This thread has run its course. Future posts will be moderated.

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Jean Wan
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HI Cuong

I'm currently doing my Masters and have chosen to explore the history of Pho and how it has changed over the years including its migration to NZ . After some internet searches, I came across your article and it's a great start.

Are you able to share your resources please? It would be a great help for my research.

Regards

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chuynh
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@Jean Wan: Thanks for reaching out. I'd be more than happy to discuss anything relating to pho, but resources are not for sharing without my having a clear understanding of your project, its goals, and what it aims to accomplish. If you want to share in detail what you want to do then I can start steering you in the right direction. If there's a need to communicate in private about the subject matter then I can do that.

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Henry Trieu
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By the way, Alexandre de Rhodes gets all the credits on creating modern Vietnamese but he was working with Portuguese missionaries who started it first. Many influences in Portuguese can still be seen in the Vietnamese language.
Example: the word for soap is Vietnamese is xà bông. That is from Portuguese sabão, not the French savon.
Vietnamese's name for days of the week begins with thứ hai, thứ ba... Meaning second day, third day... Mirroring Portuguese names for days of the week: segunda-feira, terça-feira and not French lundi, Mardi...

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chuynh
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@Henry Trieu: Thanks for your input and views. I'm sure no one can achieve anything ALL on his/her own, without direct or indirect assistance, involvement, or the knowledge of others. I am not familiar with historical accounts of who else may have assisted Alexandre de Rhodes, but with all the European missionary activities going on in Vietnam during that time, it would be reasonable to say that Portuguese missionaries also left influence in the country.

Vietnam was a colony of France for almost 70 years (ending in 1954) so the amount of influence French language and culture had on Vietnamese people was enormous. Whatever influence the Portuguese left in Vietnam before the French came would have become insignificant by 1954 and after.

Your theories about xà bông and days of the weeks are interesting. I don't have time to research with enough detail to agree or disagree with your theories, but it seems logical that French ways went pretty deep in Vietnamese life back then, including things like soap and days of the week.

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