Making pho in Hanoi is an art, eating it is a logistical matter

By Robert Vifian   April 19, 2018 | 02:31 pm GMT+7
Making pho in Hanoi is an art, eating it is a logistical matter
Two bowls of pho served with beef and chicken at a streetside restaurant in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Quang Nguyen

'I eat the noodles very quickly so they don't swell and lose their original texture.'

I left Vietnam for Paris in 1968 and have not returned since.

I arrived in Hanoi very early on the morning of March 20 to cook a special meal to celebrate the 45th anniversary of French-Vietnamese diplomatic ties at the French embassy.

The first thing I did was stroll around the neighbourhood on Tran Hung Dao Street, where dozens of small food stalls were serving breakfast to dozens of people, either standing or squatting, before they headed to work.

I'd been walking for about 15 minutes when the delicious smell of pho stopped me, and I couldn't help myself, even though I'd already had breakfast at the embassy. I ate on the pavement, sitting on a very uncomfortable stool at a low table. The taste of the soup and long lost memories overwhelmed me and were telling me: "Welcome home."

The following day, Van Anh and Sylvain Bournigault, epicures and wine merchants, took us for a late lunch at my request to the best pho in town.

We went to Ly Quoc Su. The shop is small and simple, but we ate outside on the pavement opposite railway arches painted with contemporary artworks that I liked very much.

The bowls were enormous and the broth very strong, with the right balance of the spices and super concentrated, probably because we were the last customers and it had time to reduce. It was very flavorful, with penetrating and persistant marine aromas. Did they make it with dried earthworms sa sung as my grandmother told me about 60 years ago?

The beef was thickly sliced, very tasty and abundant; the noodles were soft, thin, tender and very silky on the tongue, much more than the ones we find in Europe. On another plate were the lime, chili, coriander, mint and sawtooth coriander.

I always have a kind of ritual when I eat the pho that I cook - which I cannot do in Hanoi - because I want to experience the genuine local soup without interferring.

I eat two small bowls, never a big one.

For the first one, JUST the broth the noodles and the cooked meat. For the second one, I add thinly sliced raw beef, which changes the clarity and the taste of the soup. Then I gradually add the onions, herbs, the chili etc.., and only a little lime for the last three spoonfuls.

I always taste in order the broth, the noodles and the beef, then I mix them together on my spoon, three times. I was surprised to find metal spoons in Hanoi, instead of china. Then I eat the noodles very quickly so they don't swell and lose their original texture. This is also a reason why I prefer two small bowls to one big.

My uncle Chau from Nam Dinh Province told me that the best and original pho can be found in his home town. The next time I travel to Vietnam, I will definitely be going to Nam Dinh.

We are not sure when or where pho was created, if it has links to the French pot au feu, or to Chinese noodles, but I was thrilled by all the pho I tried in Hanoi, thanks to the atmosphere, the heartiness, the sincerity and the generosity of the people who make, sell and eat it.

Robert Vifian stands in front of his Vietnamese restaurant in Paris in a photo supplied to VnExpress.

Robert Vifian stands in front of his Vietnamese restaurant in Paris in a photo supplied to VnExpress.

*Robert Vifian left Saigon in September, 1968, at the age of 20. He is now owner of Tan Dinh, a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this June.

 
 
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