When David Huynh decided to embark on a food pilgrimage to Vietnam, he went in with an open mind and willing taste buds.
The Vietnamese-Canadian restaurateur, who currently runs Civil Liberties, a “no menu” speakeasy in Toronto, was looking to expand his culinary repertoire by digging deep into his roots. His parents had immigrated to Toronto from Saigon during the Vietnam War, meaning he’d grown up on southern Vietnamese dishes. But he wanted to learn more. His plan was to open a quick-service Vietnamese pho restaurant inspired by how the iconic noodle soup is made and enjoyed in Vietnam.
Pho, considered to be Vietnam’s national dish, is beloved throughout the country and the world. In its simplest form, it consists of a fragrant broth poured over a bed of fresh rice noodles topped with a handful of green onion, herbs and succulent sliced meat. While beef pho (pho bo) is the most popular and is eaten throughout the day, chicken pho (pho ga) is also much loved – it’s said to have been first concocted in 1939 when the government tried to curb the slaughtering of cows by forbidding the sale of beef on Mondays and Fridays. As it’s lighter than its beefy counterpart, it is often preferred for breakfast. But there are countless variations on the theme, and everyone has his or her favourite local spot to eat it.
View image of Pho is a versatile dish (Credit: Credit: xPACIFICA/Alamy)
Huynh’s one-month trip, his first time in Vietnam, took him from the north to the south and through the country’s central provinces, searching for what he considered the ideal bowl of pho.
His first stop was the capital Hanoi, widely considered to be the birthplace of the dish in the early 20th Century. When Huynh arrived at 6am, fresh off the sleeper bus, he received a warm welcome at Pho 10 (10 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem), a casual beef noodle-only pho restaurant that came highly recommended by local friends.
“This bowl saved our lives. We arrived before the sun even came up and it was the first stop that we made in Hanoi. They only serve beef pho and the ratio between beef and noodle was perfect. The accompaniments were lime, chilli, and on the table were pickled shallots, which I had never seen before,” he said. “[It was] served simply, with green onion, cilantro, onion, lime and chilli, a two-to-one soup-to-noodle ratio with a simple, yet rich broth. Nothing more,” he said.
View image of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi is considered to be the birthplace of pho (Credit: Credit: sammy / Alamy Stock Photo)
The simplicity of the dish in northern Vietnam can be traced back to the war from 1954 onwards and years after reunification in 1975. During this time, food in northern Vietnam was rationed out and subsidized by the Soviet Union, which transformed pho restaurants into state-run shops that served up bowls of bad broth, rotten rice noodles and very little meat.
Some street vendors still had their reputations to uphold though, and Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, explained that there were “secret” pho shops that sold quality rice noodles to “customers in the know”. Those that couldn’t get the good noodles began offering Chinese fried breadsticks (youtiao in Mandarin) as a side dish in order to compensate for substandard noodles. China has had an influence on Vietnamese culture for centuries, with Vietnamese people already eating congee – a very common breakfast dish in China – with breadsticks at this time, so serving them with pho was a natural progression.
As pho eventually made its climb back onto its original pedestal, with the change pegged to economic reform in the early 1980s, the breadsticks remained as a testament to harder times and are still served alongside the bowl of soup today.
A few days later, Huynh would experience another excellent bowl of noodles at Blue Butterfly (69 Ma May, Hoan Kiem), a cooking class run by a French chef. Although he considers the classic bowl at Pho 10 to be his favourite, the noodles at Blue Butterfly had more “finesse” and the broth was richer and better seasoned; you could tell it had the “touch of a French-trained chef behind it”, he said.
View image of “The long preparation for the broth is the most important step to cooking pho.” (Credit: Credit: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)
Huynh quickly learned in the class that the broth is key to the success of the seemingly simple soup. Its preparation is an exercise in great patience, taking anywhere from three hours to an entire evening.
“The long preparation for the broth is the most important step to cooking pho. While chicken pho only takes three to four hours to make by simmering chicken bones, beef pho takes double the amount of time or even overnight,” Nguyen Van Khu, a Hanoi-based chef who has been working in the restaurant industry for more than a decade, told me, noting that the traditional recipe requires a complex combination of spices including star anise, cinnamon, stir-fried pepper, coriander roots, sipuncula and a mix of grilled shallots, onion and ginger.
The bones in the stock can include hoof, rib bones and knuckles, which according to Nguyen, is owed to the French dating back to the early 20th century.
View image of Pho is an everyman’s dish that can be eaten at any meal (Credit: Credit: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)
“French colonials in northern Vietnam ordered the slaughtering of cows for steaks and other dishes they craved. The bones and tough cuts were left to local cooks, who soon found a way to turn the leftovers into delicious noodle soup,” she said.
“It was sold as affordable street food that vendors customised for each diner and the first pho fans were likely people working on merchant ships that sailed up and down the Red River.”
The soup’s popularity soon spread from Hanoi to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where the southern Vietnamese have taken a more modern approach to the dish.
“Hanoians like pure broth without any layer of fat and the dish is sprinkled with green onion, Lang basil, a bit of coriander and served with chillies, garlic vinegar and a squeeze of lime. But in Saigon, the broth is thicker and more fatty and served with fresh bean sprouts, sweet basil, mint, hoisin sauce and chilli sauce and they put quite a bit of sugar in the broth,” Khu said.
View image of Pho is prepared differently in northern and southern Vietnam (Credit: Credit: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)
During the southern leg of his trip, Huynh took another pho cooking class at Vietnam Cookery (26 Ly Tu Trong, Ben Nghe, Ho Chi Minh City) where he experienced a stark difference from the bowls in the north. It was rich and sweet, thanks to the addition of rock sugar in the broth and was accompanied with large chunks of daikon, bean sprouts, herbs and hoisin sauce. Huynh likened it to the pho that is often served in North America.
“The spices tend to be lighter in the north and they’re careful to be a bit more subtle. To an untrained palate, they might say that the broth in the north is bland, but it’s not that at all. The foundation for the broth in the north and the south is the same – but they just use very different seasoning,” Huynh said.
The pilgrimage also took him to Hoi An, an ancient city on Vietnam’s central coast. There, he tried a bowl at Morning Glory (106 Nguyen Thai, Minh An), which he found similar to the slightly sweet version he’d previously tried, but noted that it was served with roasted peanuts, a common topping for noodle dishes in Hoi An.
View image of In Hoi An, pho is sometimes served with roasted peanuts (Credit: Credit: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)
Despite having roots in southern Vietnam, by the end of his trip Huynh felt more connected with the culinary philosophies of the north. He preferred the simple, classic approach, and was inspired by the way that war and food scarcity has shaped northern Vietnamese cuisine. Based on his experience, he plans on using the purist northern methods when developing the menu for his new venture.
“To pick between Bac (north) and Nam (south) in terms of which pho is better, it is truly Bac – even though I’m Nam and used to southern styles,” he said.
But considering the beating that the iconic dish took throughout wartime and how the foundation of the soup, despite the differences in end product, has remained the same, it’s clear how versatile pho really is.
It’s the everyman’s dish that can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It can be served with both a minimalist approach of the north or the modern flair of the south. Above all, it’s an embodiment of the country’s modern history and the resilient, indomitable Vietnamese spirit.
View image of Pho is regarded as Vietnam's national dish (Credit: Credit: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.