by: RJ Fisher last update: September 2020
Phở, the national dish of Vietnam is globalized. Everybody knows Phở, everybody loves Phở. Instagram is flooded with the steaming bowls and a trendy, cool, young crowd consuming it with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon. Phở is hot!
I won’t deny it, like anyone else I also like a good hearty bowl of the fragrant deliciousness. However, I’ve noticed that with increased popularity the BS increased as well. I don’t understand the hype. After all, isn’t Phở just noodle soup?
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Origin of Phở
So much is written about Phở and a lot of it is contradicting. Of course the hype needs an interesting origin story. In the case of Phở, there are several.
First, one source says that the dish was introduced in the North of Vietnam by a small community near the Red River.
Another source claims that the French, during colonization, indulged on beef stew (pot-au-feu), leaving only bones and scraps for the poor local population. The locals used the bones and scraps to make a soup and named it Phở, which is pronounced “fuh”, much like the “feu” in the French dish “pot-au-feu”.
Finally, a third source talks about Chinese workers bringing the soup to Northern Vietnam early 20th century. Since the Chinese were already eating noodle soup for ages back home, they developed a craving for the soup when they migrated to Vietnam. So, they started to cook with local ingredients and Phở was born, named after a corruption of the Chinese “ngau yuk fan”, meaning “cow meat noodles”.
The latter claim seems most likely, since Chinese migrants introduced noodles and noodle soup in about every other South East Asian country as well. Flavors evolved according to the region, because one had to work with ingredients that were locally available.
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In a way, noodle soup is like pizza or hamburger. All three of them are globalized dishes that are more or less the same anywhere in the world. Even if there are differences in toppings and recipes, they are still named pizza and hamburger everywhere. Noodle soup however, has a different name in every country or region.
Cambodia: Nom Banh Chok (fish based) and Kuy Teav
Thailand: Kuai Tiao Ruea (boat noodles)
Myanmar: Mohinga (fish based)
Laos: Khao Poon
Is Phở better than other noodle soups?
The above leads me to the following question. If Phở is just another noodle soup, why is it hyped so much, instead of for instance Laksa or Thai Boat Noodles?
Does it have more historical value than noodle soup from other countries? Not so much. Again, noodle soup already existed a long time before Phở came along.
Does it taste better? That’s a hard one, since taste is subjective and influenced by the chef and locality. I would answer this with “not really”.
Is it of higher quality? Well, there certainly is high quality Phở around, as there is abominable. Exactly the same can be said for local noodle soups in just about any country.
So , the question still stands. Why is Phở hyped so much?
Actually, my observation is that the hype started when Bill Clinton visited a Ho Chi Minh City eatery in 2000. Then president Clinton and his daughter Chelsea ate a bowl of the soup there. Ever since that heavily marketed event the global hype for Phở took off.
You think that’s far fetched? Next time you’re in Ho Chi Minh City visit the now renamed eatery “Phở 2000” and witness the huge (American) crowds that flock there. Incidentally, the Phở there is terrible.
The same thing happened again with another Vietnamese dish. In 2016, then president Obama and Anthony Bourdain attracted a lot of media attention when they sampled Bun Cha (grilled pork over noodles) at restaurant Bun cha Huong Lien in Hanoi.
Hence, the restaurant is now overrun by instagramming Americans and Bun Cha is a complete hype.
Phò comes in many varieties. Some are good, some are better, others are definitely not. The same goes for noodle soup all over South East Asia.
Phở is just another noodle soup after all.
Do you know of a good Phở place in your hometown? Share it with us in the comments below so we can visit next time we’re around. For the best Phở in Phnom Penh (my hometown), you should check out Phở Fortune.
“Laksa” is the noodle soup in Malaysia and Singapore. Read more about the distinctive flavors of Laksa in my article “Peranakan and Nyonya Food“.