Last month, Bon Appetit published a video in which Tyler Akin, a white male chef at Stock, a Vietnamese restaurant in Philadelphia, sent thousands of Southeast Asian pho eaters into a collective eye roll. Akin explained the "right" way to eat pho, Vietnam's aromatic signature soup made of beef bone broth, rice noodles, and a bevy of herbs and spices, including ginger, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, fish sauce, and a hint of fennel as its character ingredients.
But pho is a lot like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup: there is no wrong way to eat it.
It wasn't until I was a teen that I saw my mother, Le Thi Kim Ngân, and two of her sisters eating pho in the same room together. My mom, confirming that eating pho is not a beauty contest, shoveled noodles into her masticating jaws, pausing only to slurp the necessary bit of broth to wash the hot mess down. My youngest aunt used a fork—a fork!—to twirl her noodles spaghetti-style into the cradle of her spoon, then gracefully depressed it into the bowl, filling with broth what empty spaces remained. My oldest aunt, analytical and strategic, expertly crafted the perfect bite with exact proportions of noodles, broth, meat, sauce, and herb accoutrements. My mom loves the tendon (gân) and tripe (sách) with as many steamed bean sprouts as she can fit in her bowl; my husband, the meatballs (pho bò viên). My dad cooked beef flank (pho bò nam) with enough red chilies (ot cay) to kill a man, while I prefer mine rare and bloody (pho bò tái), simmered conveniently to tender perfection in its hot broth.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
- Kim Lan Grout finds delicious pho at Bowl of Pho in Durham.
My brother, the chef, likes his pho simplest: noodles, broth, white and green onions. Crowned as our mother's perfect son and our family's beloved oldest male grandson, he dutifully serves his parents and me but is the first to begin eating. He does this humbly, complimenting effusively after the first bite but otherwise saying nothing until the last drop is gone. He, of all of us, must finish his bowl, to honor the dish and our mother's efforts in making it. The entire meal—first boil, colorful garnishes, the act of eating—is eccentric art and an act of love. Art and love just don't fit into "right" or "wrong" molds.
It's the broth that makes pho, though the type and texture of the bánh pho rice noodles play a crucial supporting role in a great bowl. The added garnishes of basil, lime, cilantro, peppers, bean sprouts, sriracha, and hoisin have the power to either round out the dish beautifully with a delicate balance of bitter, sweet, sour, spicy, fresh, and crunchy, or can even mask a poorly made broth.
But none of that really matters. "An thit." Eat the meat, my mom still says to me, a leftover habit from her days in 1950s and 1960s Vietnam, when meat was expensive and not liberally doled out by the communist government. If I am to finish anything in my bowl, she explains, finish the most expensive part.
Pho, a traditional breakfast food, originated in North Vietnam, something the North Vietnamese carry with pride. But it's been reinterpreted very differently in central and South Vietnam. Pho is as debatable a topic in Vietnam as is pizza between New York and Chicago, or barbecue on either side of North Carolina.
My mother's pho, arguably the best in the States, is more than the sum of its parts. The flavors of her pho began simmering before I was born, created with what ingredients were available, affordable, or given to her family. Those first flavors were of desperation, necessity making a mother of invention. Those tastes changed after she fled, via one week on a slowly sinking fishing vessel on the South China Sea, holding my then four-year-old brother on her lap to avoid dysentery or a fall from the ship into shark-infested waters. They spent nine months in a Malaysian refugee camp. From there, her pho evolved into a crucial comfort. It was all she had left: five siblings and her own mother scattered across several countries, two siblings dead, their father in a re-education camp, and only the memories of food to give them a home.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
- Pho at Bowl of Pho in Durham
Relief finally came in the form of American legal sponsorship. But she struggled—to establish roots, to stand up to racism and sexism. My mother tirelessly raised her son into an Asian man his peers would respect, and me, a daughter with a disability, into an assertive, outspoken Vietnamese-American woman. Through this process, her pho reflected hope and nostalgia. As she met Vietnamese people in the many different communities in which she lived, she'd sample their pho, and their own hopeful flavors reminded her of cherished people and places back home. That's my mom's pho.
I want you to eat, enjoy, and even reimagine pho. It is there for you to add your own flavor and spices, and to eat how you want. Like the country and its people, pho is a very warm, welcoming, "come as you are" and "make it what you wish" kind of dish.
But know what it took to get that bowl to your table. In that broth floats history, struggle, perseverance, and strength, garnished with political revolution and turmoil. This comfort food, likely your favorite hangover cure, was carried here on the laps of boat people, in the memories of refugees. Know that Vietnamese people—both in Vietnam and in the States—are deeply proud that Americans love their cuisine, as if to say, "At least the soup made it out OK." As my brother does, simply eat, and in eating, honor the culture of the soup, honor the story of my mother and her country. Honor its journey here, to your table.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Faux Pho"