1954; those who fled Communist-ruled Hanoi for
Saigon and its environs brought with them a dish that
was now considered thoroughly Vietnamese.
Since then, the various regions in Vietnam have
customized the recipe for local tastes, says Mai Pham,
a Houston-based, Vietnamese-American journalist.
“The country is a bit like Italy: It has three regions,
and each of them has a different flavor profile.”
“Pho has an amazing
depth of flavor ...
And it warms the soul.”
The northern style (or pho
bac) is simple and earthy:
noodles, a spicy broth, meat,
onions, lime and cilantro.
The southern style usually
features thinner noodles and
reflects the sweeter palate of
the Saigonese: bean sprouts
are common, as is a side dish
of hoisin sauce, to swirl into
the broth to taste. The central
strip of the country, around the
imperial city of Hue, serves its
own noodle soup, bun bo Hue,
a complex, multilayered dish
that is spiked with a hefty dose
of lemongrass. As for Pham?
“I like basic, bare-bones pho,
without Sriracha or hoisin
sauce,” she says.
It’s the simple nature of its
basic recipe that is at the root
of pho’s newfound appeal,
according to Nicole Routhier,
cooking instructor and author
of The Foods of Vietnam. “It
looks familiar,” she says. “A lot of people are afraid to
try something new, but you can see so clearly what is
in pho. And the minute you smell the wonderful, aro-
matic fragrance of the broth, who doesn’t want to dive
in?” Routhier has noticed that Vietnamese-Americans
have become more willing to experiment with the
recipe after working in French or American restaurant
kitchens—Routhier raves about tasting pho anchored
by a lobster tail and another topped with foie gras.
“It sounds exotic, but it’s customizable,” agrees
Nguyen. “You can personalize the bowl according
to your tastes or dietary needs: It’s naturally low in
fat and gluten-free.” Perhaps more than anything,
though, pho taps into a universal instinct, as Pham
explains. Like matzo ball soup to a New Yorker or
posole in Mexico, it’s a hug in a bowl. “People are
trying to make it out to be this big, cheffy dish, but
it’s really not. Pho is cheap and very homey—it’s the
ultimate comfort food.” [
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