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Meet the woman who brings a rainbow of color to Vietnamese pho

Saturday, December 22, 2018, 14:12 GMT+7
Meet the woman who brings a rainbow of color to Vietnamese pho
Thanh Nguyen (1st from L) showcases her signature colorful pho cuon (pho rolls) at the Day of Pho event held by Tuoi Tre Newspaper in hanoi on December 12, 2018. Photo: Nam Tran/ Tuoi Tre

Pho, a traditional noodle soup in Vietnam, is getting a slight upgrade from one local chef whose all-natural ‘colorful pho’ has earned her a spot in the record books.

One of Vietnam’s most famous dishes has cemented its reputation as a must-eat in Vietnam and has even been added to some dictionaries, including The English Oxford Living Dictionary which defines it as “a type of Vietnamese soup, typically made from beef stock and spices to which noodles and thinly sliced beef or chicken are added.”

The ‘unusual’ colorful pho

Breaking with over a hundred years of traditional, Nguyen Thi Thanh Nguyen is jazzing up traditional white pho noodles with a rainbow of color at Hai Thien Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.

The newest addition to Nguyen’s rainbow is blue made with bellvine flowers, a bright addition to the gac (baby jackfruit), beetroot, black sesame, brown rice, mustard green, red cabbage, and pumpkin colors she has developed over the past eight years.

In 2010, the Vietnam Records Book Center recognized Nguyen Thi Thanh Nguyen as the first person to create colorful pho noodles from one hundred percent all natural ingredients.

The process of making colorful pho at Hai Thien restaurant. Video: Duyen Phan/ Tuoi Tre

The process of making colorful pho at Hai Thien restaurant. Video: Duyen Phan/ Tuoi Tre

Nguyen, however, does not think her creations are anything to boast about, explaining that Vietnamese have spent generations mastering the art of coloring their foods with vegetables.

“The most difficult part is to ensure that the noodles are still firm after they have been colored,” she explained.

The toughest ingredient to work with, Nguyen said, is mustard greens because they can often make the noodles too delicate.

It took Nguyen years to identify which vegetables add the best colors to her noodles without ruining their taste or nutrition value.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Nguyen showcases her signature colorful pho cuon (pho rolls) in a photo provided to Tuoi Tre News.
Nguyen Thi Thanh Nguyen showcases her signature colorful pho cuon (pho rolls) in a photo provided to Tuoi Tre News.

The idea to color pho noodles first came to her she was struggling to feed vegetables to her nieces, the 43-year-old chef recalled.

The woman who was born to a family with a long tradition of pho noodle-making decided to try combining the vegetables with her noodles in the hopes of “tricking’ them into eating their veggies.

After winning over the children, Nguyen decided to take a shot at offering her noodles to the public.

In late 2009, she showcased her pho noodles in four colors made from pumpkin, mustard green, gac fruit, and brown rice at a culinary expo in District 1 and drew public attention.

“People were willing to wait for two or three hours to try all the colors.  It was touching and motivated me to open my pho restaurant,” Nguyen shared.

Nguyen also shared that she remembers how nervous she was when she first opened her restaurant, fearing that diners would be skeptical of her commitment to use only natural ingredients.

“I once asked a diner why she believed me and she replied ‘no one can cheat another’s tongue,” Nguyen recalled.

“That really gave me the strength to pursue my passion,” she added.

Australian Jamal Tomkinson said he had come back to Hai Thien restaurant three times in three weeks during his stay in the city because of Nguyen’s commitment to avoid chemical additives.

Tomkinson, who had tried the dish before in Australia, shared that he really enjoyed exploring the diversity of Vietnam’s national dish in its homeland.

Meanwhile, in an entry about the restaurant posted to travelfooddrink.com, Canadian Diane Misol expressed her interest in the venue’s three main dishes – pho cuon (pho rolls), pho nuoc (pho soup), and pho tron (mixed dried pho).

Many TripAdvisor reviewers have also left comments praising Hai Thien for its creative use of vegetables for coloring.

Thanh Nguyen proudly embraces the diversity of the menu she’s created, calling her restaurant a place where diners can find a full menu of pho noodle-inspired items, including pho cuon as an appetizer and pho tron and pho nuoc as main courses. 

She’s even working on a sweet pho for dessert.

Located on Bui Vien Street, Saigon’s backpacker hub, Hai Thien restaurant offers several variations of pho, including pork and seafood options.

Dinners enjoy pho at Hai Thien restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1. Photo: Duyen Phan/ Tuoi Tre
Dinners enjoy pho at Hai Thien restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1. Photo: Duyen Phan/ Tuoi Tre

The pho ‘obsession’

Nguyen Thi Thanh Nguyen shared that she had never even considered following her family’s tradition of making pho noodles when she was a child in Binh Thuan Province because of the level of skill involved.

Pho first gained a global reputation in 2000 when former U.S. president Bill Clinton tried the dish during a visit to Vietnam. 

However, just a few years later the industry was rocked when an investigation uncovered that pho noodles in several places were contaminated with formaldehyde.

Seeing her family traditional profession being affected inspired Nguyen, the former manager at an instant noodle company, to rethink her life and take a shot at making pho.

Nguyen later succeeded in reducing the noodle production time, one of her major concerns, by creating a dried pho flour which allows pho noodles to be made instantly instead of over the course of many days.

Nguyen now sells a variety of pho-related products, including pho flour and pho making machines, in addition to running her restaurant. 

To her, pho is no longer a job.  It’s an “obsession.”

At the “Day of Pho” event held by Tuoi Tre (Youth) Newspaper in Hanoi on December 12, Nguyen awed spectators with her signature colorful pho rolls and mixed dried pho.

She also used her booth to showcased how to make traditional pho noodles without a machine.

Pho is a hallmark of our nation,” Nguyen insisted. “The more I become involved in my job, the more I realize how sophisticated and healthy the dish is.”

“Thanks to pho, many overseas Vietnamese people are able to operate large restaurants in other countries.  That’s something special,” she added.

Below are some pictures capturing the process of making colorful pho at Hai Thien restaurant by Duyen Phan:

 
 
 
 
 
 

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Dong Nguyen/ Tuoi Tre News

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