Over several decades, Vietnam’s signature dishes of “pho” (rice noodles served with beef or chicken), “bun bo Hue” (Hue’s beef rice noodles), and “hu tieu” (“elastic” rice noodles), which are the pride of northern, central and southern Vietnamese people, respectively, have varied dramatically elsewhere, but they still retain their unique core.
Originating in northern Vietnam in the early 20th century, “pho” has grown into Vietnamese cuisine’s “ambassador.” Its name has been internationalized and needs no English translation.
Among the different hypotheses on its origin, one suggests that “pho” originated from a rustic dish called “xao trau” (buffalo meat in broth), which was sold along the banks of the Red River, usually to laborers.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, when the French invaded Vietnam, there were only a few beef shops in Hanoi. The shop owners did not know what to do with the ox bones, and usually gave them to beef buyers for free.
The “xao trau” owners then took advantage of the ox bones to turn them into “pho.” Henri Oger, a French soldier, featured “pho” hawkers in his book, “Technique du people Annamite 1908-1909.”
From 1920 to 1950, local “pho” cooks improved their skill in preparing the dish. This period also saw the dish’s heyday, with the appearance of many celebrated cooks.
Even during Vietnam’s resistance war against the French (1946 – 1954), when city dwellers evacuated en masse to rural areas, civilians and soldiers in the north still could not do without “pho,” their favorite dish. They even brought with them special pots, stoves, and tools to make “banh pho” (pho rice noodles).
It was not until 1954, when huge numbers of northerners migrated to the south, that the “mass evacuation” of “pho” started. The delicacy began to spread throughout the country.
In the southern region the dish quickly developed its own taste and style, which remain quite distinct from its northern predecessor. While northerners make sure that their “pho” broth made from stewed ox bones enjoys a naturally sweet taste and high clarity, the broth in southern “pho” is more sugary and murkier with beef fat.
Southerners also tend to serve the mouth-watering dish with uncooked bean sprouts and several kinds of seasonal herbs, along with Chinese condiments like ketchup, to improve its flavor.
People in the south also prefer the delicacy served in larger bowls, totally changing the dish’s nature, as it was originally eaten as a snack.
Meanwhile, in northern mountainous areas, locals mostly prepare and sell “pho” during market sessions and fests. Handmade “pho” noodles were, and still are, usually preferred. Today, the treat is served with pickled vegetables, though machine-made noodles are a more convenient choice.
Areas such as Lang Son, Cao Bang and Tuyen Quang Provinces also have “pho chua” (sour “pho”). This special variation features fried pork, roasted duck, liver, and a thick sour-sweet sauce instead of broth.
As the country adopted its open-door policy in the 1980s, “pho” turned over a new page and began going global. The delicacy then made its way to destinations as far as Paris and Orange County, California.
During its initial days abroad, the overseas Vietnamese communities did not have the necessary ingredients or condiments. Their “pho”, served in supersized bowls, was thus quite a clumsy mixture of dried noodles, frozen beef and insipid broth.
In 1990, with more Vietnamese ingredients being exported to the US, American chef Didi Emmons opened the first American-owned “pho” eatery in Massachusetts, gradually acquainting natives with its exotic, delectable taste. Since then, the dish has been brought to other US states, as well as many other countries, including Australia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia. “Pho” appeals to Koreans so greatly that many have opened their own “pho” shops to compete with Vietnamese.
However, cooks in these countries have tailored “pho” to natives’ tastes to a certain extent. Such variations are usually considered inferior to the original.
In recent years, which saw the growth of the Vietnamese communities in Europe, America and Australia in both population and economic status, coupled with the ready availability of freshly-made “pho” noodles and original seasonings, the appearance and quality of “pho” in these locations have also seen noted improvements, and have indeed become a source of pride among expatriate Vietnamese communities.
Bun bo Hue
Meanwhile, “bun bo Hue” (Hue’s beef rice noodles), or “bun bo gio heo” (Hue’s beef rice noodles with pig legs) in full - an iconic dish of the central region - is a different story.
The Hue specialty boasts an inviting taste, which is enriched by spicy, pungent chillies, fragrant lemon grasses, and Hue’s signature “mam ruoc” (small shrimp paste), an indispensable condiment for the dish.
The delicacy originally featured sliced, soft meat from an ox’s calves, pork meatballs, and fatty pork knuckles. Later, people added boiled, thickened pork blood, rare beef, beef tendon and crab meatballs. The treat is typically accompanied by finely sliced banana flowers and “rau muong” (water spinach).
In Hue, locals would have “bun bo” in the morning only, and the dish remains almost everyone’s favorite breakfast. They also prefer enjoying the delicacy from peddlers, who used to run out of their stuff by 8:00 am. Nowadays, to cater to tourists and locals’ diversified demands, the dish is readily available all day long.
The original “bun bo Hue” is quite spicy, less sugary, and boasts a rich taste on account of a large amount of “mam ruoc”. Since Hue natives moved to the central province of Quang Nam, the taste of the dish has changed to suit the local tongues. Quang Nam natives, and those in adjacent provinces, put much less “mam ruoc” into their broth, which also has a more eye-catching color than the original, with its red hue coming from annatto seeds.
Quang Nam residents sometimes put “cha bo” (beef paste) and “cha don” (cylindrical Vietnamese pork bologna) in their “bun bo”. A bowl of “bun bo” in Quang Nam tends to be meatier than its counterpart in Hue, and is usually served with a freshly baked loaf of bread and some pickled sliced onions.
“Bun bo” was introduced in Hanoi after 1975, and has become a popular delicacy. “O Xuan”, at 3A Quang Trung Street, the first “bun bo” restaurant in Hanoi, has been a very popular stop over the past 20 years.
Hanoi’s “bun bo” variation has far less “mam ruoc” and is not very spicy. The lemongrass fragrance is also weaker than the original.
“Bun bo Hue” has also made its presence known in other countries, and is considered one of Vietnam’s hallmark specialties. As with “pho”, most Vietnamese restaurants overseas serve the dish in small, medium and large bowls. The content of a small bowl, though, is still equal to three standard ones in Vietnam. Less spicy and pungent but way meatier, the dish has become a regular choice of homesick Vietnamese expatriates, as well as foreigners.
A signature specialty from southern Vietnam, where the weather is hot almost year round, is “hu tieu” (“elastic” rice noodles served with pork, shrimp, etc.).
According to experts, “hu tieu” originated in China’s Chaozhou and Fujian Provinces, and was brought by a group of Chinese to My Tho City, in the southern Vietnamese province of Tien Giang, in the latter half of the 17th century.
The Chinese dish quickly established a strong foothold in the province, and across southern Vietnam. Over time, “hu tieu” gradually became a purely Vietnamese delicacy.
Experts say that “hu tieu” in My Tho stands out from other variations thanks to its noodles, which are made from Go Cat premium rice. The specialty has also been prepared with “mi” (wheat noodles), and the mixture can be served either with broth or in its dried version, with the broth put in a separate bowl.
“Hu tieu” in Ho Chi Minh City also comes in a wide variety of styles and tastes. Apart from sliced and minced pork, a bowl of “hu tieu” here also boasts pig offal, shrimp, quail eggs, and seafood.
“Hu tieu” can also come in sautéed, stir-fried and deep-fried, crispy versions. Instead of pork, other versions include “hu tieu” with beef balls, curry, fish and goat meat.