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Four Millenniums of Culture in a Bowl

While phở is not an ancient dish, it has become so popular that it is now sold in every conceivable Vietnamese eatery, from street fare stands to upscale gourmet restaurants

A bowl of pho, photo: The News/Thérèse Margolis
2 years ago


As in the case of most nations, the culinary heritage of Vietnam is intricately linked to its broader cultural legacy.

Food has always been a vital component in the Land of the Blue Dragon’s dynamic social ethos, reflecting both its long and complex history and richly diverse geography.

The southeast Asian country’s two lush and fertile river deltas, divided by blue-crested mountains and enveloped in steamy tropical jungles, have traditionally provided an agricultural-based landscape, with rice as the most important staple, supplemented by an opulent variety of fruits and vegetables.

The Vietnamese people were among the first in the world to practice agriculture and even today, nearly 70 percent of the country’s population depends on farming for its survival.

Pho Courtesy of Wikipedia

A bowl of phở. Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Under the political thumb of China for more than 1,000 years (the Chinese emperors considered Vietnam to be a province of their domain), the country’s gastronomy has obvious Sino-Mongolian influences, particularly in the North, where stir-fry dishes and noodle-based soups are ubiquitous.

But Vietnamese cookery was also impacted by the epicurean traditions of Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

France, which colonized Vietnam in the late 1800s and renamed the territory French Indochina, also played a role in the country’s culinary evolution.

Ravaged by war and political unrest in the 1960s and 70s, Vietnam suffered severe poverty and periods of dire hunger, which made a commitment to food security a cornerstone of the platform of the leftist government that took control of the country after the conflict.

And food plays a key role in virtually every Vietnamese holiday and observance, from its Tet new year revelry and annual celebration of rebirth and renewal to the paying of homage to the dead with traditional offerings of fresh fruits and sweets.

But if there is one dish that is the quintessential cultural epitome of Vietnamese culinary tradition it is phở, a hardy broth of beef, rice noodles and bean sprouts embellished with a dizzying array of condiments that run the gamut from cinnamon and star anise to coriander and fresh chili peppers.

Phở, which has become a popular delicacy around the globe, is, in fact, Vietnam’s unofficial national dish.

Last weekend, Vietnamese Ambassador to Mexico Le Linh Lan hosted a special phở tasting luncheon at her embassy to mark the first International Phở Day, organized by her government to help promote awareness of this extraordinary potage.

Vietnamese Ambassador to Mexico Le Linh Lan Photo: The News/Thérèse Margolis

Vietnamese Ambassador to Mexico Le Linh Lan Photo: The News/Thérèse Margolis

“We chose the date of April 4 to be Phở Day because the English word ‘four’ sounds like the word ‘phở’,” Le said at the start of the event.

She went on to explain that while phở is not an ancient dish — it was apparently developed in the late 1920s — it has become so popular that it is now sold in every conceivable Vietnamese eatery, from street fare stands to upscale gourmet restaurants.

“Phở is a healthy and filling meal in a bowl that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner,” she said.

“It takes about 12 hours to make, but once it is prepared, it can be reheated and adapted to additional ingredients.”

For now, there is nowhere in Mexico to get phở other than at the Vietnamese Embassy, but Le said that she hoped that as Mexicans become more aware of Vietnamese cuisine, phở and other Vietnamese specialties will begin to pop up on Asian restaurant menus.

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