SOK Goes to Vietnam: Pho-Off

12 Jan

Steaming bowls of goodness at Pho 24

After the detour to Chicago in the last post, I’m back to finishing up my Vietnam trip. The culinary trail continues with pho, the national dish of Vietnam. Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup, usually beef with rice noodles, eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It’s to Vietnamese cuisine as barbecue is to the American South: endlessly diverse, with fiercely defended regional variations. The biggest divide is between the austere Hanoi-style, where the beef broth is presented nearly unadorned, and the florid Saigon-style, where the heavily scented soup is served with a salad’s worth of herbs. How did beef soup become ubiquitous in a small Asian country with very little room for cattle? Most blame the French (without any evidence, I hypothesize that “pho” is related to the French “pot-au-feu”), but I also suspect the influence of the Chinese, having had remarkably similar beef noodle soups in Chinese restaurants in Malaysia.

I have to confess that I didn’t eat very much pho, at most just once a day, and never at one of the street stalls — there was just too much other eating to be done. However, it was my breakfast of choice at both hotels. If you’ve never started your day with a bowl steamy noodles, I highly recommend it. Pho was our first meal in Hanoi, where we inadvertently ended up at Pho 24, the McDonald’s of Vietnamese pho establishments. It was packed with tourists (Asian and otherwise) seeking a respite from the smog and traffic outside. Still, the pho was pretty tasty, with a beefy broth that was markedly less sweet than American versions. (It’s the bowl featured in the top photo.)

Chicken noodle soup (Vietnamese style)

I also gave pho ga a try. This is the chicken version, which, like the beef version, is served not just with chicken meat, but a whole assortment of organs and parts, including the unlaid eggs.

The case of chicken "goodies"

Being an obvious tourist, I wasn’t offered any of the latter, but given my earlier experience with Southeast Asian egg items, I wasn’t all that put out.

Double, double, toil and trouble

Like all good noodle soups, the broth formed the backbone of dish. The chicken version, unlike the beef version, doesn’t have a lot of spices, just a good, clean chicken flavor, from stock cooked for hours and hours. It may not have cured my flu, but I’d take this chicken noodle soup any day.

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