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

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latiesha
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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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Joined: 11 years ago

@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
Posts: 447
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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
Posts: 447
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Pho Restaurant Consultant
Joined: 11 years ago

@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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