So sue me. I thought that phở referred to a Vietnamese street dish comprising rice noodles in a rich broth. It does, of course. But phở is much more, for the dish is actually named for the rice flour sheets from which its noodles are made.
So there I was, like an idiot, proclaiming myself to be unimpressed with phở -- it is true that I am not enamored of the dish, but I'm open to being converted -- when by doing so I was unwittingly writing off a whole host of foods made with phở or, to be more precise, bánh phở (those rice flour sheets).
But, before we go there, a quick diversion into the murky origins of Phở the Dish. By now pretty much every phởnatic knows its story: phở is the result of a marriage of French culinary prowess and Vietnamese adaption, an indiginized version of the classic pot au feu.
But not so fast. There is a contrarian take on phở's origins. I was glad to learn of it (thank you Mark of Stickyrice; the pot-au-feu-to-phở tale always struck me as a wee too neat and tidy.
In her book Aspirations and Appetites in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century Erica J. Peters tells us that phở first appeared on Hanoi streets (the creation of one single cook? or many cooks? the identity of the dish's inventor(s) are lost to the ages) after cows -- not traditionally eaten by Vietnamese but used as draft animals -- were imported into the country and raised for the colonial French table.
"Networks of Chinese and Vietnamese who butchered meat for the French or cooked their meals probably diverted beef remnants to street soup vendors," Peters elaborates in a paper titled "Defusing Phở: Soup Stories and Ethnic Erasures"
And to me at least, this take on phở's origins rings true. Wouldn't Vietnamese cooks, as enterprising as any cooks anywhere, have figured out what to do with meaty bones and scraps? Would they have needed -- or wanted -- to call upon a classic French dish for inspiration? For that matter, why should we assume that phở''s inventor(s) knew pot au feu firsthand? In her book, for which she drew on French writings from the colony, Peters describes French colonials who went to great pains to hold themselves apart from locals, right down to what they ate.
Yet there is still the question of name -- phở' must certainly be a Vietnamese transliteration of feu, right? But the word phở' could have come from fun -- Cantonese for phở'-like rice noodles -- which Vietnamese would have known from the noodle dishes that, Peters observes, were sold by southern Chinese on the streets of Saigon and Hanoi. It wouldn't be the last time Vietnamese street cooks adapted a noodle specialty from a neighboring Asian country (see hủ tiếu).
Whatever phở''s true origin story we know its evolution: from Hanoi street specialty to Vietnam's most iconic dish. Food-focused travelers to the country tend to obsess over it (often to the point of missing out on other, equally delicious Vietnamese noodle specialties) even in Saigon, which lies about 1,780 kilometers south of Phở' Central. (Phở' made its way to Saigon with migrants from Hanoi in the middle of the 20th century, and morphed into a whole other animal. Which version is better? I'm not sticking my toe into that debate.)
Lesser known to visitors is that Vietnam's beloved noodle soup now lends its name to other dishes made from banh phở', those rice flour sheets. A few weeks ago we sampled two, in a neighborhood near Truc Bach Lake that's home to a rash of shops spilling tables streetside and serving all things banh phở'. For reasons I know not of, most of these dishes include beef.
Phở cuốn are rice rice flour rectangles rolled around roughly chopped beef, cilantro and lettuce served with a nuoc mam floating thin slices of kohlrabi. Think Vietnamese fresh spring rolls with a thicker, slicker wrapper and a meatier, heavier filling. Whether it's made from wheat or rice flour I love a noodle or a dumpling wrapper that boasts a bit of heft and chew, but the phở cuốn didn't wow me. The beef was a bit chewy for the delicacy of the wrapper and I missed the in-your-face herbiness of a classic "salad roll". Tasty enough but I probably wouldn't go out of my way for a repeat nosh.
I would, however, travel many hours for another go at phở chiên phồng, a delectable saucy stir-fry of beef, tomato and choy sum or Chinese mustard (thanks Duy, for the correction) ladled over crispy golden rice flour pillows. The rice flour puffs are made by deep-frying squares cut from two banh phở' sheets that have been pressed together.
The puffs are slightly oily (difficult to avoid when you're deep-frying any dough made from rice flour) but boast the most lovely delicate crunch, which they manage to retain even after absorbing some of the dish's beefy juices. By no means a light dish (this meal was one of the few moments of our week in Hanoi during which I was actually thankful for the persistent bone-penetrating cold) this phở chiên phồng was utterly delicious.
The next day I asked Hanoi Cooking Centre's Tracey Lister, author of two cookbooks on Vietnam (Tracey's Vietnamese Street Food is out in the USA as of this week) about the dishes' origins. Almost all of the customers at Phở cuốn Hưng Bền, where we ate our phở cuốn and phở chiên phồng were young, university age or below, and this made me wonder if the dishes were relatively new. Was this a "kids' thing", a group of dishes that Hanoians middle-aged and beyond simply can't wrap their minds around? Tracey dates their appearance on Hanoi streets to fifteen or so years ago, give or take a few, and reminded me that this isn't the first "new take" on a dish made with banh phở: versions of the noodle soup made with chicken didn't appear until Vietnam suffered shortages of beef during wartime.
They're a reminder of the ever-evolving nature of street food, which we tend to think of in terms of Classics. Like phở cuốn and phở chiên phồng, beef phở itself must have once challenged notions of what one should, or would even want to, eat on the street.
Phở cuốn Hưng Bền, 26 Nguyen Khac Hieu, tel. 043-829-2040. Is this place the best of the dozen or so similar shops near Truc Bach Lake? No idea. But we did enjoy our lunch.