I submerge my chopsticks into the rich beefy broth of the Phở in front of me and catch a bundle of thin rice noodles and a strip of meat. The crunchy white bean sprouts stand out from the soft noodles when I pick various ingredients up with my chopsticks and bring them to my mouth. My mom likes putting in the thai basil, chilies, and cilantro; I prefer to stick with just the onions and scallions as greens. If my mom and I were to pick one dish we could have for the rest of our lives, this dish would be a serious contender.
Phở, pronounced “fuh,” is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, culture, and history. The broth of Phở bo, or beef Phở, consists of beef stock, beef bones, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, onion, and cloves that simmer in a saucepan for a few hours. The rice noodles are then boiled for a few minutes. Next, an essential step: warming the bowl by filling it with hot water and discarding the water before adding any ingredients. The noodles in each bowl are topped with broth, meat, onion slices, and scallions. The bowl is often served with a heaping plate of Thai basil, cilantro, chilies, mint, and some lime wedges—one of the central qualities of Phở is its friendliness and customization—and in most Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, each table has a bottle of sriracha and hoisin sauce for the customers.
When the piping bowl of Phở arrives at the table, I can’t help but admire the different colors and textures co-existing. Flat white rice noodles weave between crescents of green onion, and thin red slices of beef slowly cook into light brown. My first course of action is to grasp the smooth ceramic soup spoon and plunge it into the rich broth, filling the bowl of the spoon. Drinking the pure broth straight from the kitchen should be the first thing any person does. I sip the hot soup and my body instantly warms with love and comfort, as if I’ve returned home from a month-long journey. I then reach for the single-use wooden chopsticks that I’ve already split in half and heave raw mung bean sprouts onto the surface. After I migrate my portion of sprouts into my bowl, I maneuver my spoon and chopsticks to flip over the stacked components so the hot soup cooks the bean sprouts, and the noodles, thin beef, round green scallion wedges look up to me. Lastly, I squirt an equal amount of sriracha and hoisin sauce into the broth to make it richer and spicier. When I place the noodle strands into my mouth, I’m transported to the Saigon river where I am a food seller on one of the many long wooden boats drifting on the water and I’ve ordered a bowl of Phở for my hard-earned breakfast. The brushstrokes of the flavors make me see colors; the crunch of the bean sprouts and slurp of the noodles makes the experience even more vibrant.
My mom and I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, called “Saigon Kitchen,” near our house regularly; we’ve been eating there for the last three years. After a long day at school, a tiring archery lesson, or on a normal Saturday night, we find ourselves naturally going to the restaurant without even giving the idea a second thought. I remember snippets of conversations we have at the restaurant, from my mom congratulating me on my latest test grade or competition result to us discussing political theory and current events. We go after my archery competitions, my mom either comforting me through a loss or congratulating me after a triumphant win. We go when we feel under the weather or are too tired to make dinner. We go when I’m sad or disappointed, and sometimes I cry in the restaurant, using a paper napkin to dry my tears. And we go just to have great Phở.
We walk in and are greeted with a smile or chat of recognition. My mom sits across from me with the rectangular wooden table between us. We never look at the menu and order as soon as we walk into the small restaurant. We pour the hot tea the waiter provides us with into the ceramic cups and talk briefly about which waiter or waitress is working the shift. We admire the Phở when it comes (usually taking no more than five minutes after being ordered) and always talk about how good the flavor is and how we’re happy to be eating the dish. And we continue our conversations from the moment we sit down to when we stand up after my mom pays the check, and usually even after we leave the building to come back home.
Although Phở is the national dish of Vietnam, its creation was relatively recent. Phở is believed to have originated from the Nam Dinh and Hanoi regions of North Vietnam after the country’s colonization by the French in the late nineteenth century. The word “Phở” likely comes from the French dish pot au feu, “feu” meaning fire—the Vietnamese adapted the signature beef stew into their own dish that was convenient to make and eat. Before the French colonized Vietnam, the Vietnamese did not slaughter cows for food and the animal was only used for manual labor in the rice fields. But once the French arrived with their beef soup, the Vietnamese changed their practice and started slaughtering cows to obtain the marrow-rich, cartilaginous bones that constitute the broths of both pot au feu and Phở.
Phở was first sold by street vendors, who carried their cooking equipment, called Phở gánh, on poles, and hung them on their shoulders. However, by the 1930s and 1940s, a growing number of Phở restaurants overtook these sellers. In 1954 when Vietnam was divided into two, many people in communist northern Vietnam migrated into democratic southern Vietnam. These migrants brought Phở with them, where the recipe was further refined—now, the northern style often has a clear and simple broth with more green onion and chicken or minced beef, while the southern style tends to include a diverse range of beef parts, bean sprouts, and a variety of herbs.
While northern Phở usually uses rice vinegar, fish sauce and chili sauce for seasoning, southern Phở is often served with lime, hoisin sauce, chili sauce and fresh sliced chilies. Eventually, street vendors were forbidden as they contributed to capitalism, and those who made Phở were forced to use potato flour to make the noodles as the country was forced to ration its food. However, the vendors secretly cooked and sold fresh Phở to those who knew how to ask, which helped keep the tradition alive.
In the spring of 1975, the refugees fleeing Vietnam came to the United States with dreams of having better lives and more prosperous futures. They brought along with them their cuisine, of which Phở was now a staple. The first Phở restaurant outside of Vietnam opened in 1980 in Little Saigon in Orange County, California. Phở started gaining popularity in the U.S during the 1990s as the U.S. and Vietnam began repairing their relationships after the war. Since then, Phở, and along with it, Vietnamese cuisine, has become known universally, with 9,000 Vietnamese restaurants in the United States in 2014. I’m limitlessly grateful to these Vietnamese refugees for preserving and sharing their culture and cuisine with the rest of the world so people like me and my mom can enjoy the delicious comforting noodle soup we call Phở.