Soup of the Day

On the Origin of Pho

The theory that Vietnamese pho is descended from French pot au feu is gaining acceptance in the culinary world.

By Robb Walsh June 25, 2013


A bowl of noodle soup at Pho Ve Dem at 13030 Bellaire, the trendiest new noodle joint in Chinatown.

The waiter at Pho Ve Dem exudes attitude. He informs me that the coolest new noodle joint in Chinatown only accepts cash. I eat my noodles in peace--it's too early for the young scene-makers to arrive anyway. There are a lot of places to eat pho in Houston. Some cater to the mainstream lunch crowd downtown like Pho Saigon on Milam and some, like Pho Binh by Night at 12148 Bellaire, are open until 3 a.m.

Houston's love affair with the Vietnamese beef noodle soup called pho began at the original Pho Binh on Beamer Road, a restaurant housed in a single-wide trailer.  The first time I ate there, I got a number 6 (tai nam gau) with rare steak, brisket, and crispy fat. The beef broth was rich and salty with lots of spicy aromas—it is traditionally made with lots of beef bones simmered with charred shallots, charred ginger root, daikon, sticks of cinnamon, star anise, and lemongrass. The soup comes with an herb plate that includes basil leaves, wheels of fresh jalapeño, limes, and bean sprouts. The crispy fat was a slice of fatty beef that had been fried. It wasn’t really all that crispy after it was submerged in the soup. The soup had a deep, satisfying homemade flavor.   

Outside the front door that Saturday morning, there were several men crowded around a picnic table in front of the restaurant eating their breakfast noodles and smoking cigarettes. It reminded me of descriptions I have heard about the pho stands of Hanoi, where the dish originated. There, pho is often eaten at long common tables where workers sit side-by-side slurping their breakfast noodles.

The history of the dish is recent and somewhat controversial. It is a North Vietnamese dish that wasn't introduced to South Vietnam until the 1950s.  At a symposium on the origins of pho held in North Vietnam in 2003, French chef Didier Corlou, who has spent many years cooking in Hanoi, presented the theory that pho was inspired by the French dish pot au feu. According to this theory, pho is a mispronunciation of the French feu. Curiously, in neighboring Laos, another French Indochine colony, the beef noodle soup is called feu.

To support his theory, Chef Corlou pointed out that while oxen were long used as beasts of burden in Vietnam, beef wasn’t eaten there until the French arrived.

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