Like most cuisines, phở has a history that is almost as intricate and diverse as its recipe. One story, asserts that phở evolved from the Mongolian Hot Pot, a pungent beef soup served communally at a table. Another claims that phở originated in China’s Yunnan Province, where Vietnamese nationalists lived along the Chinese-Vietnamese border. Here, they learned to cook local dishes, including the popular goat-meat and noodle soup. Upon returning to Vietnam, they incorporated the dish into their culture, substituting beef for goat meat. A third theory, notes the importance of Polynesian settlers in South Vietnam, who favored a dish containing ground pork, tripe, and chicken eggs. There are also theories as to how beef became incorporated into the Vietnamese diet. One historian asserts that cooks created phở in the early 1900s as a way of using the leftover beef from the Vietnamese Tet (New Year) celebrations. In contrast, another suggests that beef was brought to Vietnam and China with French colonialism, when the French left beef bones and other scraps to be consumed by the locals.
Phở became a popular Vietnamese street food as the recipe was too time consuming for housewives. Urban phở peddlers prospered, selling their dishes to customers seated on stools around the cookpot. However, even the popularity of phở stems from controversy, as the urbanization of Vietnam is a direct result of the French industrialization and forced urbanization of the nation. Therefore, the idealization of phở as a traditional, authentic dish is in reality colored by the country’s forced colonialist influence.
Along side the complex history of the creation of the dish is the complex history its name. One story asserts that phở derives from the Mandarin Chinese character fen, meaning “rice noodles.” The theory is that Chinese street vendors would hawk their dishes through the streets, calling out “fe…n.” However, when the dish came to Vietnam, calling out “fe…n” was too closely related to the Vietnamese word for excrement. And thus, the “n” was dropped, creating a new word that simply meant “beef noodle soup.” However, other sources assert that the name for phở comes from the French pot-au-fue, which is a French beef stew.
Even foregoing the complex history of phở, it’s current manifestations still entail a unique diversity. There is a distinct difference between northern and southern phở. Northern phở, from Hanoi, is considered by some to be the “purest form” of phở, involving just rare beef, fish sauce, lemon juice, fresh chilies, sliced onions, and mint for seasoning. Meanwhile, the Southern Vietnamese tradition entails a practice of adding sprouts, hot peppers, black bean sauce, and herbs like Thai basil and cilantro. This intra-national tradition of phở started after almost a million northerners descended upon the south after the Geneva Accords in 1954, bringing their precious recipe with them.
Phở also entails a rich political history, specifically in regards to the way it was viewed as a national symbol after the country came under Communist rule. In an extremely popular satirical piece, essayist Nguyen Tuan wrote of how people in his country could not afford meat in their phở, suggesting that the government was not taking care of the population. This resonated with the reality of how street vendors were only able to serve meatless phở, and who license shops sold a subpar version made only from old rice and meat scraps. In addition, Nguyen Tuan analyzed the cultural significance of phở, discussing how it became to be adopted by the French (and internationally) as a symbol of “authentic Vietnam” when this really meant the “colonized Vietnam.”
Today, phở exists in a very delicate place culinary history. For some, fortunately, it has begun to exist outside of the chronology of French colonialism. It has spread into the United States, mostly as a result of the refugees who came to the country after the Vietnam War, and can exist on its own as a delicious dish that is pleasing to anyone. However, we should not ignore the unsettling feeling that results when a western nation is able to decide what is “good” when it comes to non-western cuisine. Why has phở been able to transcend national boundaries, while other Vietnamese cuisine has remained unrecognized? What does this complex history, in everything from creation, to nomenclature, to politics, say about the way that we regard the food we consider acceptable? Who is really in charge of what we eat?
To truly understand the complexity of the history of phở, it may be valuable for us to study the equally complex history of the Vietnamese written language. The current written iteration of Vietnamese is called quốc ngữ, a type of writing that was formulated based off Roman character by Catholic missionaries in the seventeenth-century. Most notable of these missionaries was Alexander de Rhodes, a man who is still considered the father of modern Vietnamese writing. This language, quốc ngữ ,was developed to aid the missionaries in their study of spoken Vietnamese so that they could more adequately preach their sermons to the local people. Yet, despite their efforts, Catholic works continued to be published in Chinese or Latin for the next two hundred years.
It wasn’t until 1861 that the linguistic system changed dramatic when the colonialist forces set up printing press to publish materials in the Vietnamese romanized script as well as French. This is when the name quốc ngữ first came into existence as the Vietnamese collaborators developed the term as a way of characterizing the Romanized script. The interpretation and use of the language continues to be a source of tension among the colonizers and the colonized. French colonial officials were convinced that they needed to curtail Chinese influences in order to establish long-lasting colonial success. Therefore, they attempted to eliminate the Chines language in an effort to isolate Vietnam from its heritage and underscore the prominence of the French culture. In 1918 the French colonialists established quốc ngữ as the official writing system for all Vietnamese school children.
However, this revolution was not entirely French drive. Vietnamese nationalists took to the language as a way of uniting local populations who spoke different languages. In giving them a common tongue, they were able to further their shared desires to focus on Vietnam as a shared nation.
By 1931, a vast majority of the Vietnamese ruling class became committed to the development of quốc ngữ as a way of encouraging the modernization of the nation and resisting alliance on any foreign language. Less than two decades later, the triad of spoken Vietnamese, quốc ngữ, and the printing press were interlinked so tightly that any other method of communication was deemed so counterproductive as to be almost counterrevolutionary.
In 1954, the signing of the Geneva Accords brought the end to the First Indochina War and finally terminated nearly a century of French rule over the ancient Dai Viet empire. Almost simultaneously, quốc ngữ was adopted as the official Vietnamese writing system, finally replacing Chinese.
The beginning of my phở journey starts as most of my tales do, with an unfortunate illness. I seem to have been born under a cursed star and I get terribly sick at least five times a year. On this particular time, I was so feeble that I was unable to leave my apartment and didn’t think that any of the Cheetos and Lunchables that I usually keep on hand would be enough to nourish my ill-abled body. I knew I needed something warm, spicy, vaguely healthy, and nutrient filled to sooth my empty stomach (and soul, if we’re being completely honest). With this class as inspiration, I decided to try something new and order phở from a Vietnamese restaurant. I went to my ever-reliable Seamless and set my usual perimeters (sufficiently high rating, sufficiently low price) and found a spot that would do the trick. V-Nam Cafe, located on 1st St and 1st Avenue was close enough to my apartment that I knew I, most likely, wouldn’t die before my delivery arrived. I clicked through to check-out and my phở beef noodle soup arrived just in time to save my life.
The pho I ordered comes in two separate containers (one with the noodles and veggies, one with the broth and beef), so it took a little bit of effort to put together. This got me moving and made me realize that my life wasn’t going to end on the fourth floor of my apartment building. It was spicy enough to bully the snot out of my sinuses and had enough vegetables to make me feel like I was getting the nutrients I needed. And this was in addition to the noodles and meat, which my limited knowledge of nutrition taught me was necessary to survive.
I knew this was the dish I needed to study for my artifact project. I began my research into phở, taking notes on the different theories of its origin and exploring the intricacies of Vietnamese culture. As I was doing my research and taking notes, I realized that I kept writing the Vietnamese words as they appeared to me in English, completely ignoring the additional characters (what I later learned are called diacritics) that extend off the Latin letters. I decided to do a little bit more research into the Vietnamese language. I came to learn that I wasn’t entirely off-base in assuming that written Vietnamese is closely related to Roman languages. I read of Alexander de Rhodes and his influence on the now official written language called quốc ngữ. The more I read about phở, quốc ngữ, and Vietnam, the more confused I became. The story of this country, it’s cuisine, and it’s language, are not a simple timeline. While trying to digest all of this, I encountered problems as grand as synthesizing a national history into a six-page paper and as small as trying to figure out how to type in quốc ngữ on my English keyboard. Ultimately, I had to realize that my best effort was the best I could do, and that in acknowledging my inability to fully process all of these historical happenings, I am winning in my own loss. I’m understanding that I can’t understand, and am enlightened by this rich history that I previously hadn’t engaged with.
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Greeley, Alexandra. “Pho: The Vietnamese Addiction.” Gastronomica. 2.2 (2002): 80-83. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Marr, David G. “Language and Literacy.”Peters, Erica J. “Defusing Phở: Soup Stories And Ethnic Erasures, 1919-2009.” Contemporary French & Francophone Studies 14.2 (2010): 159-167. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.. U of California, 1981. 136-89.
Peters, Erica J. “Defusing Phở: Soup Stories And Ethnic Erasures, 1919-2009.” Contemporary French & Francophone Studies 14.2 (2010): 159-167. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.