Phil Lees takes tasting tour of Melbourne pho establishments and encounters a new variation on the popular Vietnamese staple.
Earlier this month, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, took time out of his tour of the Northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi to work as serving staff at a local phở restaurant chain. VietnamNet is there:
The pho restaurant that welcomed the Australian diplomat was a Pho 24, a famous chain of pho restaurants owned by a Vietnamese businessman who studied in Australia. Entering Pho 24, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith made a quick tour of the restaurant and then donned the costume of a chef to prepare a bowl of pho as a professional chef…
…“It’s easy, but a little bit hot!” he said after leaving the kitchen, wet with sweat.
This also lent Smith the opportunity for the classic political moment of posing for a photo while wearing an unbefitting hat. He doesn't look supremely comfortable behind the phở counter but at the very least, he gets to don a statuesque toque in a warm foreign country.
In Vietnam, Pho 24 is one of the first restaurant chains to take a local street food off the streets and give the dish a veneer of decorum. Patrons are seated in a spotless, air-conditioned restaurant rather than by the roadside on an insubstantial plastic chair. Gone is the joy of inhaling carbon monoxide while downing bowls of the aromatic street soup amongst the locals.
Not to mention that the décor in your average Pho 24 restaurant has all the soul of a freshly-polished Starbucks.
It would be easy to complain about the experience losing its authenticity, if only their soup wasn't such a superb example of pho: both subtle and herbal while richly meaty. With Pho 24's owner Ly Quy Trung's Australian connection and the implied political support of the Australian Government, it made me wonder what the Australian influence had been upon the food and whether there is a distinctly Australian style of pho?
In the last few months, I have sampled at least ten different pho joints around Melbourne from Richmond to Footscray and I'm beginning to be convinced that Australia is developing its own unique style of Vietnamese food. This had absolutely no influence on Ly Quy Trung.
The key is meat.
Much like the development of distinctly Australian Chinese food into the popular meat-centred stir fries (think steak and black bean sauce), I conjecture that pho is taking a similar path. In Vietnam the focus is upon a subtle blend of herbs and spices in the stock balanced with the punch of fresh herbs: fish paddy herb, sawtooth coriander, basils and mints, spring onions.
In Australia, the focus is shifting to the meatiness of the stock with the herbs and spices lost somewhere in the background or just not present at all. This isn't necessarily a bad development but a response to changes in local tastes and conditions. Fresh herbs in Australia are more expensive than the cheaper cuts of meat that bulk out pho's opaque broth; where the converse is true in Vietnam. Has anyone else spotted local variations?