Wednesday, March 18, 2009

FOOD Vietnamese Soul Food

Having authentic phở on its home base will change your perception of the memorable beef noodles, as JANET TAY discovered on her recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnam

“THE PHở IN VIETNAM IS REALLY GOOD,” my friend said. We were planning a last-minute trip and he’d suggested Hanoi for a relaxing holiday where we’d just eat, drink, and visit museums. I didn’t need much convincing. Initially I’d wanted to go to Siem Reap—it is slightly nearer, the airfare is cheaper and the itinerary is pretty much fixed: visit the Angkor Wat. But what little I knew of Hanoi was tempting—a former French colony (I was imagining the same outdoor café culture and superb coffee), excellent food, and a dry, cool winter. And when you pit a tiring temple-trekking holiday against food, great coffee, lazing around in outdoor cafés and more food, the sloth in me emerges triumphant.

“Did you say ‘fuh’?” I asked.

“Vietnamese beef noodles. They’re called ‘phở,’” he said. Big deal, I thought. I’d had Vietnamese beef noodles before. They are quite common in Kuala Lumpur although I have yet to find a noodle shop that sells Vietnamese beef noodles good enough to leave an impression. This is reminiscent of my hunt for Sarawak laksa in KL, only I haven’t been as obsessed with beef noodles. Phở, like Sarawak laksa, is also eaten at breakfast—understandably so as it is quite light and usually sold in small to medium-sized portions.

“Seriously, the ones there are so much better than what we get here,” he insisted.

“It’s just beef noodles. Anyway, I guess I’ll find out when we get there,” I replied, still somewhat indifferent. I was more interested in the kind of French food they might have in Hanoi. I was imagining foie gras for a fraction of the price, cheap pate, fresh baguette, duck confit, and every kind of fresh bread we could find. Our flight was scheduled to arrive in Hanoi at breakfast time, so we could start our hunt for phở right after we checked in at our hotel.

It wasn’t hard to find phở. There were phở shops everywhere—sold in kopitiams (coffee shops) much like the ones in Malaysia, cafés, and even in makeshift stalls on pavements with shin-high tables and tiny stools. We finally decided on a kopitiam with English menus, so we could simply point to the dishes we wanted to order. Our orders came in a flash, unsurprisingly since it’s just a matter of pouring boiling hot soup into a bowl of flat noodles and beef. The first thing I noticed about the phở was that there was no accompanying lime, bean sprouts, Thai basil and thorny cilantro, as is commonly served in Vietnamese cafés or restaurants in Malaysia. I thought nothing of it until I researched the origins of phở recently, where I’d found an interesting article by Mai Pham, a restaurateur and author of The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking, in the San Francisco Chronicle ( /11/05/FD48543.DTL). Her excerpt on how phở is different in the north (Hanoi, where it is said phở had originated) and the south (Ho Chi Minh city) is very illuminating: “In the south, phở became highly embellished … Because southerners are by nature indulgent—demanding richer, livelier flavors and textures—bean sprouts and rau thom or fragrant herbs such as saw leaf and basil were added … Garnishes such as lime wedges, fresh chillies, chillie sauce and tuong, or black bean sauce, were served alongside, giving the soup a dimension never before experienced. As in the north, it quickly became a favorite, but only after it had been modified to fit and reflect southern taste.” All the beef noodles I’d had in Malaysia came with the ‘embellishments’ Mai Pham mentioned. I didn’t miss them in Hanoi though, not having a particular preference for bean sprouts or basil leaves, cooked or otherwise. Even the lime wedge was unnecessary as I found out upon my first taste of the warming soup. The beef stock was rich and tasty, without having that heavy beef smell that is sometimes present in beef broth and burgers.

Like all good soups, the only word I can think of to describe the uniqueness of phở in Hanoi, is depth. I never even knew that beef broth was supposed to be delicate yet strong, an assortment of tastes all in harmony. The beef noodles I’d had so far now seemed poor substitutes for the real thing. Even the noodles were of the right consistency, but you must eat them fast before they absorb the broth and become too soggy. I now knew why my friend had been raving about the phở in Vietnam.

And there’s nothing like having a bowl of hot, steamy soup on a cool winter morning. The temperatures in Hanoi in December hover around 12 degrees Celsius, which isn’t too cold, and it is generally very pleasant weather for walking. It was still a little chilly, however, and the contrast between the cold and the soup was thrilling indeed.

There are conflicting views on where phở might have originated. Generally though, it does seem that authentic phở is the product of Northern Vietnam. Andrea Nguyen, an author, freelance writer and cooking teacher based in Northern California, in her 2004 article in the San Jose Mercury News talks about the possibility of phở being from the Nam Dinh province in Hanoi. Northerners who moved to southern Vietnam brought along phở, which, as already mentioned, became adulterated by southerners to suit their tastes, much to the horror of northern phở purists, as Nguyen states. Her description of the resulting southern version of phở, the freewheeling incarnation that ‘reflected the southern Vietnamese penchant for eating wildly complicated food’ reminded me of my criticism of West Malaysians adulterating Sarawak laksa, not content with its light but piquant flavour.

For the Vietnamese, local or overseas, phở is definitely more than just sustenance. It is a reminder of the old country, of home, family and love; the food of childhood memories. Even if you’re not Vietnamese, it doesn’t take much to understand the obsession with a simple bowl of simmering broth, beef and noodles that keeps you enthralled till the very last drop.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).

Reproduced from the March 2009 issue of magazine


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