As I advice others on how to open and operate their own pho restaurants, a common pho question always come up searching for a good answer. Seeing that it can result in much confusion or misunderstanding, I want to put this out to share my views on this.
The question I get very often is: what is real, authentic pho and how do I make it?
First a bit of background. I'm not going to go into the whole history of pho here. For that, you can read about The History and Evolution of Pho. For the purpose of this post, the important event was 1975, the end of the Vietnam war, when large number of refugees left the country to settle mostly in the U.S., Canada, Australia and a few European destinations.
At the time, pho was already regional in Vietnam. There was a Northern pho version and there was a Southern pho version which are essentially Hanoi/Nam Dinh pho style and Saigon pho style, respectively. Of course the 2 styles exist today and thriving. They have the same or similar basic ingredients with some variations in ingredients and cooking method/process depending on the region.
The Pho Confusion
Well, 1975 happened, and almost 30 years later, beginning around 2005, pho gained popularity and became pretty much a global phenomenon. It can be found in all corners of the globe. Many people, especially non-Vietnamese, have an opportunity to taste a wide variety of pho during their travel to different places, and more importantly, a lot more freely in Hanoi and North Vietnam. As a result, pho Hanoi is becoming more known and unavoidably is thrown into the mix and discussion of what is real or authentic pho.
I should point out that, pho should not vary widely from place to to place. Good pho should follow a fairly narrow band that defines pho as pho. Anything outside of that band, we already have a name for it, as exemplified by the excellent tasting and awesome hủ tiếu, which does allow for wide regional variations.
So, a few people from mainland China and elsewhere asked me that they want to make authentic pho like being served in California, not in Hanoi or Saigon. A few others mentioned that they like to serve the more "authentic" version with jalapeño as used in North America as opposed to the Thai chili pepper they have in their country.
Wow, what a mess of confusion, wouldn't you say?
I always take the time to explain the difference and what is what and where is why. The risk of being a culinary dish becoming well-known globally in such a short explosive time is to create a mess of confusion. Today people can get pho almost anywhere and some reality is lost not just in the thick of it, but also from a few liberal local pho restaurateurs claiming they serve authentic pho. For those who live near a Vietnamese community in the U.S., Canada, Australia or Europe, or were introduced to pho in these places, it is the Vietnamese pho they know as the real pho, and everything else is compared to it.
The answer of what is real, authentic pho is even more elusive.
Is Global Pho Vietnamese Food Anymore? Well... Yes and No
As in many things in life, we develop personal preferences, habits, or even biases, for a particular food we grow up with. Pho is no exception, even for young Americans these days.
Due to events in 1975, a period of more than 39 years as of 2014, we now have pho outside of Vietnam that has really morphed into something based more on available regional ingredients and taste. For example, the pho you find in North America today originated from almost 100% of the Saigon style brought over to the states from 1975 and after. Over 40 years, it continues to change to fit customer demands and new ingredients; witness the reduced fat and no-MSG use in the broth, the addition of seafood pho, the expansion of vegan pho, and use of wagyu and even Kobe beef. For many pho lovers, there's a real difference in pho in San Jose CA compared to pho served in Little Saigon down in SoCal, and there are fans who will pledge allegiance to either.
During this same 40-year time period, pho within Vietnam continues on its own development path with new younger generation of pho operators, with changing local tastes, and with foreign visitors. Plus there are expatriates coming back to open pho businesses, taking with them Western influences in ingredients and cooking methods. Add to all of this the Northern style and Saigon style pho that are intrinsic to each region in Vietnam, and you can see we have pho going in many directions.
Food and tastes change over time. Pho is no exception.
The Question Remains: What's Real and Authentic Pho?
- If you really want to be correct about it, there is no real, authentic pho except for what’s officially defined by a respected and authoritative body as the real, authentic version in both historical and traditional senses. Unfortunately, this body doesn’t exist at least for the foreseeable future.
- Alternatively, maybe we can define real pho as pho made by a Vietnamese person, or pho made in Vietnam, or pho made by a Vietnamese in Vietnam. Sounds somewhat reasonable, but for me this may be true back around 1975 or even the early 1980's and is no longer true now.
- In the end, I want to enjoy good pho, the kind that I know "tastes right in all aspects" and gives me the "experience that I expect." This, I define as pho that
- Possesses all things that convey the Vietnamese-ness of the dish, including all the basic characteristics in ingredients, preparation, and service of what is known traditionally as pho, with clear tasty broth produced with care using the proper spices, VERY fresh ingredients and herbs, properly served rice noodle, and correct combination of garnishes, AND
- Is instantly recognizable as pho in both look and taste by the majority of people who normally consume pho, AND
- Is enjoyed by a large number of people who are willing to pay for it within the same local area.
This is my strict definition of what real, authentic pho is. It takes into account important elements that, when combined together, contribute to the awesomeness of real, authentic pho. It also takes into account consideration of changing market and environment and time and place.
If you don’t have all 3 of these characteristics, then I would say you don't have real, authentic pho. If you have an empty pho restaurant, then you don't serve real, authentic pho. And it's really meaningless to claim that you serve real, authentic pho from family recipe without all 3 characteristics above. A restaurant may serve good pho, but without all three, it's not real, authentic pho. It's just good pho.
So what do you think? What's your view of real, authentic pho? Please share your opinion in the comments below.