Tweaking tradition

“Pho” is now served in a variety of different ways and, more recently, its unique taste has even been fused into beverages.

By Le Diem on December 16,2019 09:28 AM

Tweaking tradition

Photos: LE DIEM

Most foreigners are slightly bemused that Vietnamese people seem to eat “pho” nearly every day for either breakfast, lunch or dinner. While it’s true we love the noodles (known as “banh pho”) and broth variety, there are actually many other versions of “pho” and some are even more popular than the original noodles and broth.

Creative Vietnamese have brainstormed different variations over the years, adding to the diversity of the country’s cuisine.

“Pho bo sot vang”

Along with the popular “pho” and broth is another type of “pho” and broth with a red color - “pho bo sot vang” (stewed beef with wine) - the preparation of which Vietnamese picked up from the French in the 20th century and is an example of a dish featuring a blend of Western and Vietnamese influences. The local part of the dish is the usual ingredients and spices found in “pho” broth, such as star anise, cinnamon, and cardamom, but with a pleasant aroma from the wine and tasty stewed beef. In addition, the beef, which is muscle cut into cube shapes, also provides a totally different taste from the thin slices of beef in a regular bowl of “pho”.

“Pho xao”

Besides the “wet” varieties of “pho”, “dry” “pho” is also available at almost every “pho” eatery. The “banh pho” is cooked with oil, beef, spinach, garlic, onion, and spices in a pan at high temperatures to create a delicious plate of “pho xao”, or “fried pho”. The secret to the dish is a strong cooking fire that engulfs the pan and gives it its special taste. Hot, soft and delicious, “pho xao” it is great in winter and for those who love a fatty, strong taste.

“Pho cuon”

Meanwhile, on the hot days of summer, another “pho” dish actually helps cool you down. “Pho cuon”, or fresh “pho” spring rolls, was created in the early 2000s for exactly this reason, when its “creator”, Vu Thi Chinh, a cook at a “pho” eatery in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh district, wanted to make a new dish from “pho” for the summer, as the broth in traditional “pho” made customers perspire too much. She creatively used softly-cooked “pho” sheets (of the same consistency as “pho” noodles before they are cut) as wrappers, rolling in slices of fried beef, salad, and some herbs, accompanied by fish sauce mixed with vinegar, sugar, garlic, and green papaya.

The new dish was a fresh new version of familiar “pho” and soon gained in appreciation, making Chinh’s small eatery, called Chinh Thang at 7 Mac Dinh Chi Street, stand out among the hundreds of “pho” eateries around town. Noting her success, her neighbors learned how to make the dish, turning the local area into the “pho cuon kingdom”. Different from “wet” “pho”, in which the broth is the “soul” and requires detailed preparation, “pho cuon” is easy to make even at home, as “pho” sheets are readily available at local markets and the recipe is quite simple. Besides beef as the main filling, “ngan”, an animal in the duck family, is added in another option known as “pho cuon ngan”, making the dish even more special. The tasty grilled meat mixed with lemongrass in a fresh spring roll is a unique experience compared to other popular types of fresh rolls and is preferred by many diners.

Tweaking tradition

“Pho chien phong”

People not only come for “pho cuon”, which is usually ordered together with “pho chien phong” (inflated deep-fried “pho” or “pho pillows”). “Pho” sheets are, again, used differently. Instead of being cut into noodles or used for wrapping fillings, sheets are cut into squares and made into layers that inflate upon frying, bringing a surprising new crispy bite to the traditional soft “pho” and especially delicious when used with the same sauce as “pho cuon” or another sauce made from beef stirred with spinach, tomato, and onion. Both dishes provide “Yin” in the fresh cool “pho cuon” and “Yang” in the hot crispy “pho chien phong”, for a healthy and balanced diet.

“Pho trong”

Tweaking tradition

Another yummy blend of “pho” and fish sauce, “pho tron” (“mixed pho”) is also popular around town. Different from the dishes above, “pho tron” uses chicken instead of beef, which is cooked in a special way. After being boiled, the chicken is torn into strands the size of a finger and mixed with “banh pho”, dried onions, peanuts, herbs, and a combination of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and soya sauce, for a fresh sweet and sour taste.

The love Vietnamese have for “pho” and their creativity is expressed not only through food but also drinks. When a “pho” cocktail was introduced a few years ago by Pham Tien Tiep, a bartender at the Metropole Hanoi, it struck many as odd. But when people tried it, they were taken in by the exceptional flavor of “pho” in a cool and refreshing drink.

Creating the new cocktail took Tiep a lot of time. While other cocktails are shaken, this can result in the star anise, cinnamon, and cardamom - the three key elements of “pho” - overwhelming each other and losing their individual flavor. So, Tiep created a new metal tool to make the “pho” cocktail, which he calls a magic tree, with three small containers holding the three ingredients. Tangueray Gi, with its lime flavor, is also an important part for the cocktail, and is poured into the containers and burnt to become a special mixture in the glass. The cocktail is served with coriander leaves on top, as in a bowl of “pho”. His creation saw Tiep crowned Diageo Reserve World Class Vietnam champion, organized for the first time in 2012, as the best bartender in the country.

The typical flavor of a bowl of “pho” has also been transferred into beer. Ordering a glass of “Pho beer” from Fubrew and C-Brewmaster Craft Beer to accompany a bowl of “pho” allows you to enjoy its unique taste twice, with the familiar malt aroma in the beer changed by cinnamon, star anise, and light chili.

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