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Learn where pho originated and how it has evolved over time.
Pho is Vietnam’s most famous dish and its most successful culinary export. But where did it come from and how has it evolved?
The Origins of Pho
Pho was born in Northern Vietnam during the mid-1880s. The dish was heavily influenced by both Chinese and French cooking. Rice noodles and spices were imported from China; the French popularized the eating of red meat. It is believed that “pho” is derived from “pot au feu,” a French soup. Vietnamese cooks blended Chinese, French, and native influences to make a dish that is uniquely Vietnamese.
The modern version of pho emerged between 1900 and 1907 in northern Vietnam, southeast of Hanoi in Nam Định Province, which at the time, was a substantial textile market. The workers in the area delighted over a bowl. Street vendors would carry a pole over their shoulder where two wooden cabinets hung, one housing a cauldron over a wood fire, the other storing noodles, spices, cookware, and space to prepare a bowl of this soup. They served it at dawn and dusk.
After the second world war, many people from North Vietnam moved to South Vietnam to escape the communist rule of the North. This led to the creation of pho nam. Pho nam is usually made with a broth that is seasoned with many spices and heavily garnished with fresh herbs such as bean sprouts, basil, and cilantro.
As the dish moved south, cooks infused it with additional ingredients until it evolved into the version that is commonly served today. The soup was mostly served with broth, noodles, and vegetables at the time. Then they used chicken and later the French introduced red meat. Later, the Vietnam War even influenced the ingredients in the soup due to food shortages.
After the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnamese conflict, many people of the South fled to various parts of the world, allowing the spread of pho along with other Vietnamese dishes. When the soup made its way to America, shops cropped up in California. New variations were created and even combined with Mexican ingredients. In the latter half of the 20th century, pho had spread across the globe, even having its own commemoration days.
Pho is about tradition as much as it is about change. It comforts as well as stokes the imagination. The soup is now easily found in many places of the world and is very popular on social media. While beef remains the favorite and chicken ranks second in terms of popularity, Vietnamese cooks are always coming up with something new.