• Vietnamese beef pho (Alan Benson)Source: Alan Benson
"Let’s take a really simple dish like spag bol, and think about how many different ways there are to make it. Pho is the same..."
Lucy Rennick

30 Apr 2018 - 12:57 PM  UPDATED 30 Apr 2018 - 12:57 PM

Trying to pick a favourite element of pho, the rustic Vietnamese breakfast staple, that’s now more or less ubiquitous worldwide is on par with choosing a favourite child. Is it the rice noodles – slippery, chewy and translucent? Or the not-too-sweet, not-too-spicy bone both, jam-packed with star anise, cinnamon and clove? Then there’s the meat, and, finally, the toppings (fresh herbs, fresh chilli, bean sprouts) and sauces (hoisin, Sriracha) that add to the dish to really make it sing. 

A hard choice to make, not least because of the way all the elements work together in symphony to create a nourishing, warm-hug of a dish. Remove one element from the mix, and all of a sudden, it’s not quite pho. 

“It’s the first noodle dish I ever ate, and the first I learned how to cook,”

For Vietnamese-Australian chef and restaurateur Luke Nguyen, pho is synonymous with family; a soup rich with not only flavour but intergenerational (and inter-continental) exchange. Nguyen has sold more than 1 million bowls at his Sydney restaurant, Fat Noodle. But he’s still not over it – it’s as much a part of him as his Vietnamese heritage. 

“It’s the first noodle dish I ever ate, and the first I learned how to cook,” Nguyen tells SBS. “You never cook just one pot. You cook enough for your neighbours, your extended family. It’s all about bringing people together.”

“In my adult life, pho is about communication. You’ve got your parents in another country trying to tell you that they love you and that they want you to come visit sometime – but they don’t say it in words. They cook a whole pot of pho over a few days instead, as a way of communicating through food. It’s a sign of love, care and nurturing.”  

It’s one of Nguyen’s long-held dreams to one day open a restaurant entirely dedicated to pho and all its iterations, of which there are many. In Vietnam, the dish can be as varied as the families across the country: each home chef takes the foundations of the dish (the broth, the noodles, the meat), interprets them and creates something new. 

“Let’s take a really simple dish like spag bol, and think about how many different ways there are to make it. Pho is the same – the way you make it is, however, you want to make it; however your family likes it,” he says. “I don’t like it when people say things like, “that’s not a proper pho,” because, really, there’s no such thing.”

As long as it’s simmered for as long as possible (minimum 8 hours, but Nguyen opts for 24), it’ll taste good.

Pho is said to have originated in the north of Vietnam as a breakfast for those working in the rice fields, sometime in the 20th century. But, like the dish itself, it’s hard to pin down its beginnings to one strict narrative. On her blog, Viet World Kitchen, chef and author Andrew Nguyen highlights different explanations: that it’s the result of a Vietnamese ‘spin’ on the classic French dish pot-au-feu (pot of fire), for example. 

“The pho in the north [of Vietnam, in Hanoi and surrounding cities] is a clean, light simple bowl of noodles,” Nguyen says. “It’s almost like rainwater, with a very subtle flavour. The people of Hanoi like to eat elegantly – simple, light and soft.”

In 1954, Vietnam was split into two, and nearly 1 million people moved from the north to the south to escape communism. They took their beloved pho moved with them.

“In the south, we love our pho with lots of herbs and spices,” Nguyen says. “We want it a little bit darker, we want to taste that cinnamon, that star anise. We want a full-bodied bowl of noodles. We’ll throw in a lot of accompaniments – fresh coriander, bean sprouts, fresh rice patties, chilli, lime and extra fish sauce.”

If there was a battle between northern and southern pho, which would come out on top: the clean, fresh rainwater, or the heady, punch-packing potage?

“If you grew up eating southern pho and you go to the north, you might say, “it’s so bland,” but that’s not an educated response,” Nguyen explains. “It’s a light, delicate bowl of noodles. You have to understand the way the northerners eat. I really appreciate the northern version, because you get to taste the subtleness of every flavour. You can’t way the northern version is bland.”

As long as it’s simmered for as long as possible (minimum 8 hours, but Nguyen opts for 24), it’ll taste good.

Particulars aside, northerners and southerners can agree on one thing – that when it comes to eating your own perfect bowl of pho, there are no rules. “Eat it the way you want to eat it,” Nguyen says emphatically. “If you want to eat pizza with a knife and fork, do that.”

“I put my sauces on a tray and mix them together, then dip the meat onto the tray. I do add bean sprouts to my broth, but some people like the sprouts blanched before they add them. I throw my basil in there. In Hanoi, I have a doughnut with my pho [he’s talking about a savoury, Chinese doughnut]. Different regions of Vietnam do different things. It’s all about being adaptable.”  

Vietnamese beef pho

This week on Luke Nguyen's Food Trail, Luke shares this ultimate recipe for beef pho, Hanoi-styleLuke Nguyen's Food Trail airs 8pm, Thursdays on SBS and then you can catch-up on SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more.

More Vietnamese goodies
Banh mi: A migration story wrapped in a fluffy bread roll
If every dish can tell a story, then the Vietnamese lunchtime staple - banh mi - describes a fascinating tale of refugee migration and entrepreneurial ingenuity.
13 recipes that are pho the win!
Here's why you should be making bowls brimming with a rich broth.
Beef pho wrapped in rice noodle (pho cuon)

There are a lot of varieties of pho on the table and this recipe brings together all the elements of a comforting bowl in a juicy rice noodle wrap. 

This sizzling Vietnamese crepe is the snack of your dreams
Easy to make and even easier to eat, banh xeo is the perfect dinner party favourite.