For pho's sake: eateries must unite to ensure quality

The pho (Vietnamsese noodle) storm that travels the world has been transforming into something beyond recognition.
For pho's sake: eateries must unite to ensure quality. (Photo: VNS)
Pho is one of the most popular Vietnamese food all around the world. (Photo: VNS)

It seems every week that the food in Vietnam wins a culinary prize somewhere. The latest place to make headlines is Ho Chi Minh City, the southern metropolis of close to 9 million people.

TimeOut UK ranked the city fourth among the world’s top 20 culinary destinations. It deserves it.

As the country's biggest rice granary that feeds a greater part of the population, rice grown in the Mekong Delta is exported the world over. But growing rice only won’t make a region a culinary haven. It’s the people who live there that do that.

The southern city, sometimes still referred to as Sai Gon - its former name - is a melting pot for not only Vietnamese who head to the city from all corners of the country, but also Vietnamese of Chinese descent, and the Cham and Khmer, people of different ethnicities from the Northwest or the Central Highlands.

Over the past 30 plus years, the booming economy, and migration of people from different regions to the city have made it a real haven for food supplies, trends and flavours.

With bustling business activities, the flow of money and travelling people, the city means it offers everything from culinary staples to food art and Michelin-starred eateries.

One good side to the country being at the acme of food fashions is that it gets people to talk and come to visit.

The not-so-flattering side is that this quick flame can burn or sweep away, as trends, by definition, are not long-lasting.

Many years ago, I would freak out upon reading a pho review in the New York Times that described it as a popular noodle soup to be consumed with tofu and several herbs.

Today, even with a national pho day and a pho festival in Nam Dinh Province, no one can set the record straight.

Pho in the North and South may bear the same name, but they are two entirely different things.

Even in Hanoi today, some pho shops serve sweet basil and mung bean sprouts as a side dish to add to a beef pho.

Pho with roasted duck, or pork roast and intestine sausages, or sour pho, which are from the northern mountains, can be ordered for delivery any time in Hanoi now.

And not only in Hanoi, a market in downtown Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, has been serving bamboo shoot pickles as a side dish to pho for a long time now.

And the pho storm that travels the world has also been transforming into something beyond recognition, which yours truly would refuse to even call pho (check out Page 20 for more musings on what makes authentic Vietnamese food).

A recent cooking session on UK TV even told people how to sear a half-an-inch thick steak with crispy edges to top a bowl of pho, with any type of noodle to your liking, including egg or glass noodles. Treason!

The Vietnamese diaspora around the world may have had to make do with limited ingredients in the past if they wanted some flavours. But with today’s commerce that’s no excuse, and you can have all authentic ingredients to make the best pho possible outside of Vietnam.

To be honest, it irked me to hear that my friend had her best beef pho in Australia and best free-range chicken pho in Belgium.

My friend later explained that Australian beef and bones are superb, so make the great broth. As for the fresh noodles, they can buy them from a local Vietnamese store.

In Japan, a Vietnamese company now produces fresh pho noodles every day, with Japanese standards, and supplies all pho shops and supermarkets.

In Hanoi, we have to accept machine-cut pho noodles, which are too narrow and not so good as fresh hand-chopped ones.

If our local traditional pho houses do not get together in some kind of professional guild or association, then someday they won’t even be able to compete with international pho, which will have better broth, thanks to advanced cow-rearing practices, fresher noodles and fragrant organic herbs. Let’s pray that day will never come.

Let’s hope that Ho Chi Minh City will maintain the significance of a dish we all can definitely call pho.

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(Source: VNS)