Pho and coffee: A Vietnam-US gastronomical bond

January 1, 2023 | 03:37 pm PT
Hong Phuc Journalist
I walked into a supermarket in the U.S. searching for some instant pho, a glimpse of my cuisine and culture in a faraway land. Upon entering the instant noodle rows, I only saw Chinese, Thai, and Japanese versions of pho. None of the packets was a Vietnamese brand.

I settled for two packs of instant pho, one beef and the other chicken. They are sold in the average American supermarket chain for $5 and $6 respectively. The noodle was unnecessarily thick, and in combination with the bland and tasteless soup, it was a horrifying experience. I have had better experiences with instant pho that cost less than $1 in Vietnam.

In Atlanta, where I live, I usually visit a Vietnamese restaurant in a food court in my local shopping mall. A bowl of beef pho costs me roughly $17, with tip included. Costly as it might be, it carries a taste of home, as the restaurant owner is a born-and-raised in Vietnam. He made the northern Vietnamese version of pho, with very little sugar added. A bowl of pho at a higher-ended restaurant would cost me roughly $20.

Although most Vietnamese restaurants in the United States make pho with dry noodles, and not the fresh version we usually see in Vietnam, I still savor each bowl with enthusiasm as if I were buying a ticket straight home. It is a comforting warmness after days of Western bread and meaty American meals.

A bow of pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) is served at a restaurant in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Anh

A bow of pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) is served at a restaurant in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Anh

Pho in the United States is not only enjoyed by the homesick Vietnamese dispora. The popularity of the dish has spread wide and far, becoming a favorite of many American looking for savury but healthy alternatives to their common fast food meals.

Pho is not the only Vietnamese product that has made its mark in America.

A few years ago, I met the CEO of Starbucks in Vietnam. She said to me that Vietnam is one of seven main sources of coffee for Starbucks, the most famous global coffee chain with branches peppered around every American city.

Though Americans consume Starbucks coffee on a daily basis, not many of them know about the origin of their coffee. According to the U.S. Coffee Association, 70% of coffee consumed in the country are arabica coffee beans from Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico, while the other 30% are robusta coffee beans from Vietnam and Indonesia.

Though American people consume Vietnamese products regularly, the word "Vietnam" still reminds them more about a bloody war than the cultural and social contributions that Vietnam has made to the country.

"We were deeply saddened by what the war had brought to Vietnamese and Americans alike. I wished it had never happened," Willie R. Tubbs, a professor at East Florida University, and a dear friend, told me. "But as Americans, we love what you brought to the U.S. We love pho."

The more I heard about how American friends love our pho, the more I became concerned about how "Vietnamese" the dish actually is being served in many American restaurants across the country. As I entered Vietnamese restaurants, I saw bottles of fish sauce and chili sauce with descriptions written in Thai, Chinese, and English. Strangely, nowadays, Cambodians, Thais and Filipinos are also selling "Vietnamese" pho in their restaurants.

Globalization has brought Vietnamese coffee to the United States and Starbucks to Vietnam. Why can't we bring the authentic Vietnamese pho to America as well? As the people of other Asian countries have brought their ramen, sushi, kimchi, tom yum and other instant products to all supermarkets and restaurants in all corners of the the United States, why can’t we Vietnamese do that as well?

Vietnamese pho, if brought to the America in an organized effort, would not only fill the belly of the Vietnamese diaspora, but also become an economic opportunity for Vietnam. As a country, we need to take responsibility for delivering the most authentic version of our culture and cuisine to the world, before some Chinese or Thai conglomerate spreads a distorted version of our dish of pride.

There’s history between Vietnam and the United States, and I think that will never change. Nevertheless, we can create a new bond through cuisine and culture, through a bowl of pho or a cup of coffee that brings joy to people.

*Hong Phuc is a Vietnamese journalist.

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