Phở has played a pivotal role in the lives of Vietnamese, but its history and evolution has been ferociously debated for many years by historians and locals alike. It was in the small city of Nam Định, located an hour and a half outside of Hanoi, that phở is believed to have been born. From these humble beginnings, the flavorful dish spread across the country.
Cows were mainly used as draft animals prior to the French occupation; beef being consumed mostly after the introduction of French cuisine to Vietnam.
The historical debate of phở's creation is not only of the dish itself, but also the soup's ingredients. Cows were mainly used as draft animals prior to the French occupation; beef being consumed mostly after the introduction of French cuisine to Vietnam. Some historians believe the word “phở” comes from the French word “feu”, meaning fire. In French, “pot au feu” is the name of a beef stew that has some similarities to the recipe and final look of the famous Vietnamese soup.
To create a bowl of phở, broth is made by simmering bones for hours. Thick rice noodles (bánh phở) are added, as well as beef and herbs (such as cilantro) and bean sprouts (most commonly included in the south).
The Chinese word “fen” translates to “rice noodles”, prompting some historians to argue that this may be the word's origin.
Vietnam has had a long history of war and foreign occupation. This unrest provided many plausible origins for phở. Prior to the French occupation, Vietnam was occupied by China for 1,000 years. The Chinese word “fen” translates to “rice noodles”, prompting some historians to argue that this may be the word's origin. Vietnamese scholar Nguyen Ngoc Bich describes stories of Vietnamese nationals escaping the French occupation to live on the Chinese-Vietnamese border. Initially, this group of rebel allies created a soup made from goat meat, which was bountiful in the Yuman province. When the group finally returned to their homeland, they used the more readily available beef instead. Others, such as cookbook author Nicole Routhier, contend that the dish has its roots in the Mongolian hotpot. One Vietnamese editor from the Vietnam Service of the Voice of America, Le Van, instead tells a story of a band of Polynesian people bringing the dish with them to Southern Vietnam.
Though its origins are fiercely debated, phở has become a much-loved national Vietnamese symbol. The word "phở" was officially added to the Vietnamese dictionary in 1930.
The South's lack of cold winters and other variations in the ecological landscape allowed Vietnamese to add a mixture of fresh ingredients like Thai basil, bean sprouts and other herbs to their phở.
As phở grew in popularity, many food vendors began adding different ingredients in order to stand out from their competitors. In 1939, Vietnamese locals were startled when confronted with a version that replaced beef with chicken. Though initially unpopular, chicken phở (phở gà) has now become a well-known variation of the classic beef phở across the country (phở bò). The Vietnamese celebrated the end of the French occupation in 1954, prompting many Vietnamese from the North to relocate to Southern Vietnam. The South's lack of cold winters and other variations in the ecological landscape allowed Vietnamese to add a mixture of fresh ingredients like Thai basil, bean sprouts and other herbs to their phở. This "Saigon-style" phở is now found around the world.
The American-Vietnamese war was another hardship that split the country. When it ended in 1975, an estimated 125,000 Vietnamese left to make a new home in the United States. With them they brought their culture, and an integral part of that was their cherished national dish: phở. It was this immigration that led to phở being enjoyed across the U.S. and, soon, the entire Western world.
(This piece has been edited by the original author at the author's request)