The History of Pho
EMG Pho Notes
The world of food is filled with many examples that show how cultures can combine to created new dishes, and indeed whole new cuisines. A recent trip to Vietnam proved to confirm that while this splendid country has retained a passion for its own traditional cuisine, the influence of French imperialists has also had a profound impact. One example is the increasingly popular noodle soup, Pho. In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at how this soup came to be and how it went from being a local specialty in the north of the country to being one of the most popular soups in the world.
EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
Pho Real: The History of Pho
I don’t need to do that. Get my head around it. Ugh.
The real… ok… Let’s do this.
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
And welcome to the latest episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And today’s short, but hopefully savory episode is inspired by a recent research trip to South East Asia, a journey which took us to Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos and the home of the magnificent dish about which we are going to be talking about today, Vietnam.
Now, before I go any further, I do want to say that I’ve done my very best to try and get my Vietnamese pronunciation right but I know it’s not going to be perfect. So I hope those of you with Vietnamese descent who know the language will cut me a little slack. Thank you very much.
While in the northern city of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and its second largest city, we ate well. In fact, as my weighing scales can testify, we ate very well indeed. Everywhere we turned, there were great dining experiences to be found from stalls in the bustling markets to small restaurants and fine dining experiences. So much good food at every corner, and yet, if I am asked to pick a highlight, my memory immediately goes back to one meal taken on a Sunday morning when we were both suffering from far too little sleep caused by jet lag, and, I have to admit, a little too much bia hoi -- a fresh local beer that is sold on street corners for about 25 cents a glass -- and we were very much in need of comfort food and nourishment.
What we chose was the most perfect example of a classic Vietnamese noodle soup. It’s a noodle soup based on a deep, rich, nourishing broth, a handful of noodles, plenty of herbs, beansprouts and slices of either beef or “Bo” in Vietnamese or chicken or “Ga” in Vietnamese. It’s also a dish that is rapidly becoming one of the most increasingly popular across the globe and a dish that has a truly fascinating history, even though it’s only been in existence for around a hundred years.
So today, on Eat My Globe, let’s talk about the history of pho.
In the last half decade or so, pho has arguably established itself as one of the most recognizable dish in Vietnamese cuisine outside of the country itself. Houston, Texas alone boasts over 100 restaurants specializing in this superb noodle soup. Sometimes these are featuring numbers in their names to reflect good fortune or a significant number in history -- the year Saigon fell, for example -- and sometimes they have excruciating puns that rival those given to fish & chip shops in my own home country of Great Britain. My own particular favorites would be the one that inspired the title of this episode, “Pho Real,” and one that would surely be approved of by a certain Mr. Snoop Dogg, “Pho Shizzle.”
And, Pho is also a dish that, like Japanese ramen, has crossed over from being solely a single part of a menu in an ethnic restaurant to one that has become recognized across the cultural and culinary vernacular of the United States and other countries across the globe. There also may be many people who struggle as to how to pronounce its name correctly, and, I am sure that I will receive many e-mails for my own failings in that department. But, I shall do my best.
So, how did this dish, which really came into being only a hundred or so years ago, go from being just one excellent dish among many in the varied repertoire of Vietnamese cuisine to battling it out for global soup supremacy? Well, for that, of course, we need to begin in Vietnam.
The land that we now know as Vietnam can be traced back to its roots in the third millennium B.C.E. when people inhabited the Red River Delta as an area for irrigated rice cultivation. Vietnamese tradition tells us that its first ruler was named Huong Vuong, who founded the nation in 2879 B.C.E. In 111 B.C.E., it came under Chinese rule. And it was then ruled over by the Chinese for the next 1000 years.
After a number of failed rebellions, the Chinese were finally defeated in 938 C.E., and North Vietnam became its own independent state. The South of Vietnam remained a separate state known as Champa -- actually a collection of kingdoms -- under the influence of India. And it was not until 1786 that the whole of Vietnam became unified.
Now, this admittedly very potted history is an attempt to show you that Vietnam came under substantial influences in its early development. Not surprisingly, these influences had a significant impact on all areas of its culture, including of course its food. Influences that can still be felt today.
The cuisine of Vietnam was already a varied one with a long history. It was a cuisine that had been influenced by its neighbors. It is believed that beef was introduced to the Vietnamese by the Mongolians in the 13th Century. The cuisine also had a categorized system, based on the notions of Yin and Yang, a system likely inherited from its major neighbor, China, who ruled the country for almost a thousand years. It was system that balanced itself around a series of five elements, five colors and five flavors that together in each dish were believed to create balance.
The five elements corresponded with certain flavors: acrid corresponded with metal, sour corresponded with wood, bitter corresponded with fire, salt corresponded with water, and sweet corresponded with earth. The five flavors also corresponded to organs of the body where acrid corresponded with the lungs, sour corresponded with the liver, bitter corresponded with the heart, salt corresponded with the kidneys, and sweet correspondent with the spleen.
And, the five colors were white, green, yellow, red and black, which all needed to be balanced in every dish.
Now, these influences on Vietnam, of course, were not just from its near neighbors, but also from later arrivals from Europe. Archaeological evidence discovered in the form of coins by French Archaeologist Louis Malleret in 1942 show that there had been a trading relationship between the Roman Empire and the thriving maritime port of Oc Eo, now near the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. And later, there was also evidence that famed explorer, Marco Polo, visited the land of Champa in the 1280s.
Perhaps, one of the most significant impact from Europe came first, as it often did, from Catholic missionaries from Portugal, as they helped usher in the subject of today’s podcast. Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries, who had established routes from Europe to India and China to advance the spice trade, led European mapmakers to add modern day Vietnam in to European maps. The Catholic Church was a significant part in spreading Portuguese influence in Vietnam, as it was in all global explorations. So, by the 1580s, Portuguese priests began arriving in Vietnam. A mission was soon established in the northern city of Hanoi, with the support of the local ruler.
Subsequently and significantly for our story, by the middle of the 17th Century, increasing numbers joined them from France. While those first visitors were in search of soul rather than wealth, it was not terribly long before the Europeans realized that the land of Vietnam was also one of great financial opportunity.
The French colonial empire began in 1534, when French explorer, Jacques Cartier, landed in the Americas and called the area that is now Canada’s eastern coast, “New France.”
The colony in North America was successful and by the 17th Century, they went on to establish permanent settlements around the Great Lakes and in Louisiana, a territory that in 1803, they were to sell to the nascent country of the United States of America for $15 million in a sale known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Other settlements were established in South America and the West Indies, including colonies such as Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, and in Africa, including colonies in Senegal and later, Algeria. In the East, the French East India Company established colonies in areas such as Pondicherry in India, and significantly for our story, they also began to look to an area that became known as French Indochina, which covered an area that is now the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Their incursion into these lands was a methodical process that followed a very well-practiced method. It involved both taking part in battles between rival factions in the region in return for more land after success had been achieved by their partners and by strong military responses when they encountered resistance from many of the regional princes to this European incursion. The resistance by locals included snubbing of one-sided trade deals offered by the French and the mistreatment, expulsion and sometimes execution of missionaries.
Under the rule of Emperor Thieu Tri, who ruled Vietnam from 1841 to 1848, missionaries who ignored local edicts were imprisoned or expelled from the country. In 1847, after France negotiated the release of imprisoned missionaries, French officials aggressively demanded that Thieu Tri allow missionaries and indigenous Catholics to have complete liberty in his country and to end his commercial restrictions on French merchants. While awaiting word from the royal court, the French started meeting with Catholic priests in the area to gather intelligence. They also seized the sails of Vietnamese ships, which prompted Thieu Tri to send in warships to Da-nang harbor. The French opened fired and sank all five of the Vietnamese warships, and destroyed Vietnamese coastal defenses. Unsurprisingly, the emperor responded rather badly to this, issuing an order that all Catholic missionaries be killed. Fortunately for the missionaries, he died just a few weeks after giving this order and it was never carried out.
Unfortunately, however, for the missionaries, Thieu Tri’s son, Tu Duc, became the new ruler of Vietnam in 1848. As a quick side note, Tu Duc was said to have regularly dined in a single meal on 50 different dishes made by 50 different cooks and served by 50 different servants. I call that Tuesday.
Anyway, back to our story, Tu Duc continued his father’s isolationist policies and his antipathy towards the French, for their continued incursions, and Catholics in general, which he declared a “heterodox doctrine.” In fact, so determined was Tu Duc to remove Catholicism from his land that he carried out reprisals against Vietnamese converts, by tattooing the characters, “ta dao” or “heterodox religion” in English, on their faces, and denouncing them as,
And I quote:
“Poor idiots seduced by priests of a perverse doctrine.”
Tu Duc also ordered the death of foreign priests and missionaries. In 1857, two Spanish missionaries were executed on his orders and, along with Tu Duc’s other activities, this provided the French with the perfect opportunity to expand their influence in the region and to expand French capitalism. The order to attack Vietnam was issued by Emperor Napoleon III, who sent his naval commander in East Asia, Rigault de Genouilly, to attack Da Nang. De Genouilly arrived with 14 warships and 2,500 troops and was able to rapidly capture the port and then moving on to capture the city of Saigon in 1859. After various encounters, the French also captured three other territories. The French called their new colony Cochinchina in 1862. And by 1883, this southern territory was joined by Northern and Central Vietnam, including Tonkin and Annam, which became French protectorates.
By the late 1880s, the French were in control of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and began to impose a western style administration upon the lands over which they now had control. There was an introduction of a French style civil service, and the layering of a judicial system that worked alongside an existing Chinese system based on the laws of Confucianism. However, as well as these elements of change to the bureaucracy, there were other changes that began to have a significant impact on the traditional Vietnamese culture.
These changes included changes to the religious demographic of Vietnam, now that Catholicism was no longer under threat. It’s a change that is still in evidence today when 6.6% of the population of the country follows the Roman Catholic faith.
There were also changes to the Vietnamese language. These were developments that had already been set underway in the 17th Century, when Jesuit Alexander de Rhodes, created a version of Vietnamese using the Latin alphabet, rather than the existing Chinese characters. The language was known as Quốc Ngữ. However, apart from use in de Rhodes’ initial dictionary in Quốc Ngữ, which was called, Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum – that’s a difficult one to say at the best of times – and published in 1651, the language did not get used widely until the 19th Century, when the French began to use it as a tool to promote western ways. Its ease of use as a language, by comparison to those using Chinese characters, saw it being adopted rapidly. In the 20th Century, it was even promoted by Vietnamese reformers themselves as a way of breaking free from Chinese influence.
There were changes to the architecture, particularly of the major cities, where leading French architects were invited to created buildings that represented the splendor of France in Asia. As my recent visit proved, many of these buildings, such as the Hanoi and Saigon Opera Houses, are still in use now for the same purpose for which they were constructed, while others, such as impressive apartment buildings have now been turned into shopping malls or café blocks.
And, of course, the French arrival in Asia -- in fact, the settlement of all Europeans in Asia -- brought with it changes to the cuisine of the region. Just as the Portuguese can be thanked for introducing chilies to China, and the British for introducing European style beers to India, so too did the French arrival in Southeast Asia have a culinary impact on the land under their colonial control.
The culinary balancing act we discussed earlier still remains intrinsic to Vietnamese cuisine today, but the arrival of the Europeans had a considerable effect as new ingredients began to arrive in the country and as colonial culinary techniques began to be incorporated. Ingredients such as potatoes and asparagus began to find their way into Vietnamese cuisine. And, their names reflect the fact that they were recognized as new introductions. Asparagus is known as “măng tây” or “Western bamboo shoots” and potatoes, at that point a relatively new introduction into French cuisine, as you will know if you have had chance to listen to my episode on Fish & Chips in season one, as “khoai tây” or “Western root” or “French tuber.” Alongside these ingredients, we also see the introduction of coffee. Vietnam is now the second largest producer of coffee in the world after Brazil. Western style bread also came in to the country, which of course led to the creation of one of Vietnam’s other great contributions to world cuisine: the delicious bánh mì sandwich. I have to say, I was almost tempted to make this episode about this sandwich, but noodle soup prevailed.
And, what about that noodle soup? Well, first there are arguments about what Pho actually is. There are some who believe it is a noodle dish with a bit of liquid, while there are others who are happy to refer to it as a soup. Now, that is far too dangerous an argument for me to get involved in, so for the purposes of this episode, you will have noticed that I refer to it as a noodle soup. So you see that fence? That’s me sitting on it very firmly.
There are almost no references to the creation of Pho, other than by hearsay. In her excellent book, The Pho Cookbook, author Andrea Nguyen says that she believed it was first created before 1910 in a small village called Van Cu in the Nam Dinh province about 60 miles southeast of Hanoi. And, in his equally excellent website, Loving Pho, Pho restaurant consultant Cuong Huynh makes an impassioned argument for the long held belief that the name Pho is derived from the classic French dish of braised beef called, “Pot au Feu.” Cuong Huynh bases his argument on the fact that the French name literally means, “Pot on the Fire,” which is the same cooking method of the broth of Pho. He also bases his argument on the similarity of the two dishes with the substitute of some cooking ingredients notwithstanding.
In his article, “100 NĂM PHỞ VIỆT” or “100 Years of Vietnamese Pho,” Vietnamese culture and history researcher and physicist, Trịnh Quang Dũng, argues in an often cited article on the history of pho – which my lovely wife painstakingly Google translated for me – she made me say that – that pho could not have originated from “pot au feu” because the French dish is a stew with beef and vegetables, such as carrots, leeks and turnips, and eaten with French bread.
So, as you can see, it gets very confusing and there are lots of arguments.
According again to author Andrea Nguyen, who lays out Trịnh Quang Dũng’s theory much better than I can, pho started when vendors already selling a simple noodle soup became creative and added leftover beef scraps, which were being sold by butchers at a discount. With that, the French connection is that the main meat of the beef was being sold to the French because, at the time, the Vietnamese ate very little beef. Now, of course, as with so many dishes, the exact origins of Pho are almost impossible to be certain about. However, there is no doubt that it is a dish that reflects not only upon traditional Vietnamese cooking techniques, but also the impact on the country of its major culinary influencers. The use of the different noodles that are so vitally important for Pho would likely have come from the Chinese, and, while cattle were widespread in Vietnam, they were primarily used as draft animals rather than as a source of food. Although beef was consumed, its widespread use was definitely a result of the arrival of the French. Beef was an expensive ingredient and would have been outside of the budget of most Vietnamese and limited primarily to the French administrators. What would have been available however were the bits of the animal not required by the French and any bones of the animals that were slaughtered. These would have been perfect for making the deep, savory broth that is the heart and soul of a perfect Pho.
Pho first began to achieve popularity in the early 20th Century in the North of Vietnam in Hanoi, and in the Nam Dinh province. It was sold by street vendors called, ganh phở, who carried the ingredients and broth in large containers connected to bamboo poles they straddled across their shoulders and heated on portable ovens they carried with them. Originally, Pho was eaten as a breakfast dish, but soon became popular enough to eat any time of day.
The northern style of Pho, or “Pho Bac,” was a relatively simple dish that was all about the quality of the clear broth made with the beef bones, with a few additions. In a 1944 cookbook by Lam Bep Gioi known as, “Cooking Well,” pho calls for nothing more, and I quote again Andrea Nguyen’s article in Saveur,
“rice noodles, beef, scallions, fresh herbs, broth, and black pepper.”
Now, great arguments still ensue in Vietnam about the best pho. In the north, this would still be a narrow flat rice noodle, with the soup only being accompanied by small side dishes of green onion, cilantro, pepper, chilies and mint.
Pho might well have remained a regional dish available only in north Vietnam and not widely known in the culinary world, if it were not for two more significant events.
In 1954, after much internal conflict in France’s Southeast Asian colonies, it became clear that France was no longer in a position to maintain them, and Paris looked to make peace with Vietnam. At the peace accords, which were held in Geneva, the French and the Vietnamese agreed to a temporary partition of the country into North and South Vietnam. A partition that would end in an election in 1956, to reunify the country. The North retained Hanoi as its capital, while the south bestowed this title on the city of Saigon. This led to a movement known as, “Operation Passage to Freedom,” which was enacted because numerous people in North Vietnam wanted to move to South Vietnam and were allowed 300 days in which to do so.
An episode of a food history podcast is not really the place to go into the results of the partition and the future conflict that was to ensue in Vietnam. If you want to know more about that in great detail, do go and check out Ken Burns’ superb series, The Vietnam War, or any one of the hundreds of books that have been written on the subject in the years since.
However, for our story, “Operation Passage to Freedom” had a major impact as those Vietnamese who fled south took with them their love of Pho. The south proved to be more abundant in ingredients than the north and its cuisine already encompassed liberal use of herbs and spices. The incoming northerners began to incorporate different ingredients into the Pho they prepared in their new homeland. They supplemented the broth with the addition of hoisin sauce and chili sauce. They incorporated different cuts of beef to create subsections of pho, such as Pho tái, which incorporated rare beef, Pho nam, which included beef flank, Pho gau, which included brisket, and Pho gan, which incorporated beef tendon.
Also, as beef remained an expensive ingredient, even in the more abundant south, an alternative version also began to emerge which utilized the much more readily available and affordable ingredient of chicken. This used both chicken meat in the soup and the carcasses of the birds to make stock. This style of Pho was known as, “Pho Ga.”
With the additions to the broth and the incorporation of the herbs and other cuts of meat, the Pho in the south became far more indulgent than its counterpart in northern Vietnam, and perhaps is more familiar to anyone who has not had chance to experience Pho in Hanoi. One of the other reasons that it is perhaps more familiar is what happened in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War – also known as the American War in Vietnam or the Second Indochina War in academic circles – and with the fall of the southern capital of Saigon. Much of the population of South Vietnam fled to different corners of the world, both immediately and after the war. Over 125,000 were part of a sponsored evacuation to the United States of America, with others finding their way to Canada, France and Australia amongst others.
Once again, a food history podcast is not the right place to discuss the history of what happened to the Vietnamese who left the country, but I do urge you to go and read more about the brave and sometimes tragic stories that occurred during that period. For our story, it suffices to say that the Vietnamese population in the United States grew very rapidly over the next four decades in subsequent waves and often facing much hostility from locals. As of 2017, there are now 1.3 million people of Vietnamese descent residing in the United States of America, which makes them the sixth biggest foreign-born group in the country.
Now, just as had happened when the people had fled from North to South Vietnam, those who came to the United States brought their culture and cuisine with them. Many looking to secure a future for their families began to open small businesses, including cafes and restaurants. These required little formal training and were relatively easy to establish. Primarily aimed at feeding others in their own communities in places such as San Jose, Orange County, New Orleans and Houston, these restaurants soon began to attract non-Vietnamese customers, such as myself. They were attracted by the healthy options of the cuisine and by the fact that Vietnam had become a globally successful destination for tourists and TV food presenters. It was a favorite location of the late and sadly missed Anthony Bourdain, for example.
The most recent numbers I could find show that in 2014, there were 8,000 Vietnamese restaurants in the United States of America, and you can be certain that unless they are a one dish specific restaurant everyone of them will offer a version of Pho on the menu.
However, just as Sushi and Ramen have moved on from being just one item served in Japanese restaurants, so to has Pho emerged from the wider menu to generate stores dedicated solely to its own production. Not just in the United States, but around the world. And, just as in its homeland, this wider recognition brings with it the inevitable arguments about which style is best, which region serves the best and how authentic each preparation is.
But, that’s an argument for another time. Suffice to say, I hope that this episode of Eat My Globe: a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food has convinced you that Pho is on its way to being a global soup superstar.
Or if I may say, that it is,
See you next week, folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the U.C.L.A Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: May 20, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.