Everything in Vietnam is nuanced and layered – especially food. So I’m not pretending that after six weeks I’m an expert on Pho, but I can peel back a layer or two. Pho, a soup with vermicelli noodles, greens and meat, should be called Vietnam’s Food Ambassador as it seems to be the best known dish outside the country.
Pho is NOT pronounced FOE. It just isn’t. It’s closer to the French word for fire, feu. But the key is in the tone, and if I understand it right, the voice goes down and then up a tiny bit at the end. We’re still working on it.
When we got off the plane and arrived in Hanoi at 10:30 at night it was the first thing we ate even though I originally understood that Pho is for breakfast. It’s what our hotel served for breakfast and when we went with our friend Quyen to his village last week-end it’s what we had in the morning. But we’ve also been eating it for dinner and for lunch. Looking it up I discovered that the South Vietnamese confine it to breakfast and sometimes lunch, whereas here in the North it’s an any time of day meal. Pho B0 (Bo sounds more like BAH) made with beef, and Pho Ga made with chicken are most common.
We, like many of you, have eaten Pho in North America. But the one thing we hadn’t experienced was its partner quay. Quay is essentially a deep fried piece of dough you dip in the Pho. Somara adores them, and I like to start my Pho with a piece of Quay while the broth cools. On their own, they’re ‘meh’, soaked in a good broth they’re ‘YAH!’
I thought Pho was defined by the size of the vermicelli noodle, a slim one. But we were just introduced to a restaurant where the noodle is wide, wider than linguine. This particular shop has two kinds of Pho Bo; thinly slice pieces of raw beef cooked by the broth or thick grisly chunks of beef that have cooked so long they fall apart with the touch of a chopsticks. You can have both if you can explain that in Vietnamese to the server. We love the place, but it’s a cab ride away.
Watching people eat Pho is fun as it’s an expression of your personality. How many quay do you consume if any, do you add hot sauce, lime juice, salt and pepper, pickled hot peppers? I recommend hot sauce.
Around the corner from our apartment is a really good Pho Ga spot where Tim has gone to buy just the broth. (The owner sent him home with two cups and wouldn’t accept any money). And if you go the other direction is a Pho Bo spot where you can see the huge quantities of meat that go into the broth. Tim says Pho is defined by it’s broth, and we’ve discovered a couple chicken broths that are so clear they would make any Jewish Bubbe proud. What I love are the greens, green onions in particular.
If you live in Halifax, go try the Pho on the Bedford Highway at I Love Pho. Tell them that a friend in Hanoi says their broth is on par with the best we’ve had in Hanoi and could they please start to make quay, because some Hanoiing Canadians are going to ask for it when they return home.