Part 7

Pho Fundamentals

In which we learn it's far more satisfying to eat noodles than to think about them.

Way back in 1952, Vu Bang crowned pho Hanoi's “fundamental food” after thinking about the dish and the space it occupied in his beloved city for far longer.

Vietnamese scholars started waxing poetic about pho when it entered the Vietnamese lexicon, about two decades before Bang weighed in. They have continued to do so, ever since.

One of Bang's contemporaries, essayist Nguyen Tuan, described the noodles as a kind of currency, during wartime.

“The homeless dealing at black markets count their commission in bowls of pho,” he wrote. “If a deal turns out right, they'll pocket a hundred bowls of medium-rare pho.”

In his book “Hanoi Delicacies,” Vu Bang noted that some stalls had taken it upon themselves to “improve pho.” Thirty years before his book dropped, Bang had taken a shining to a family on Hang Chieu Street who offered a version of the noodles dressed in sesame oil and tofu. Another shop, on Phu Doan, began adding oil squeezed from the ass of a waterbug.

Bang did not approve of additions of duck, chopped carrot or pickled papaya.

But he did approve of experimentation, in general, which brought Hanoi chicken pho, fried pho and other perversions that survived the test of time.

The only test of a pho's merits that interested Bang was the taste test. In his recollection, it was the only thing that mattered to anyone.

“Words get around: if a pho stall is good, the capital knows within 10 days,” Bang wrote while spying in Saigon. “If the quality dips, customers disappear in just two weeks.”

Bang judged the merits of a given stall by how many bowls he could eat in a single sitting.

His favorites enticed him to order three in a row — even if the bowls contained nothing but noodles and the broth, a Spartan order he called “vegan” (pho chay) despite the flavor it derived from bones.

“On some days you feel like going vegan,” he joked. “A good broth excels without a shred of meat.”

Bang once spent hours watching Trang, a peddler he crowned “The Pho King of 1952” to see if he could figure out how the man always managed to draw a line of nearly a hundred customers to his stall, every morning.

“That lifeless creature, despite being harangued by 80, 90 people, played blind and deaf,” he wrote. “He'd stand there stolidly chopping meat, pouring broth and fish sauce.”

As he dug through his noodles, sipped his broth and considered possible shortcuts — everything from MSG to squid heads — Bang admitted he didn't really know what made the soup so good.

Every now and again, he'd rip up some mint and throw it into the mix and just give up wondering.

“[Eating it] feels more satisfying than knowing the ins and outs of pho,” he said, offering wisdom that seems most valuable today, when pho thought has devolved into a kind of cultural mine field.

“[Eating it] feels more satisfying than knowing the ins and outs of pho.” – Vu Bang

Earlier this year, when a white Philadelphia chef described how he liked to eat the dish, he was pilloried for something called “cultural malpractice.”

But when I pictured poor Tyler Akin pulling a pho cart onto a sidewalk in Hanoi in the 40s and slicing up a jalapeno, while pleading with customers to eschew the hot sauce, I imagine Vu Bang and his pho comrades would happily give his offerings a try.

Nowadays, Hanoi bustles with pho noodle salad (pho tron), fried pho (pho xao), fried pho crackers (pho chien phong) and even pho drenched in bordelaise sauce (pho sot vang). According to historian and physicist Trinh Quang Dung, the latter has been around for at least 50 years.

New variations are certainly around the corner, but it seems as though we've reached a kind of saturation point in the writing and talking about the national noodles.

Like Bang in his day, we find pho edicts less interesting than pho eating.

In fact, we may have finally hit a point where it's OK for us to stand on a Hanoi street corner and shout “I don’t like pho” or “pho is overrated.”

No one would likely argue with you and some might even agree.

Next story from Ha Noi Bang Bang:

Eating was an art

Writer: Quynh Trang

Illustrator: Tien Thanh

Coder: Manh Cuong