In Camilla Gibb’s new novel, The Beauty of the Humanity Movement, Old Man Hung and his wooden food cart are celebrities. Amongst the backdrop of Vietnam’s upheavals, Old Man Hung has perfected the art of pho; followers map his culinary movement along the fringes of contemporary Hanoi on a daily basis.
The history of pho — a Vietnamese breakfast soup of rare beef placed on top of rice noodles in a steaming broth — is a bit of a mystery. Some sources attribute the “beef fondue” method to the French (Hanoi was the capital of French Indochine from 1902 to 1954) and the origins of the broth and noodles to the Chinese.
With few ingredients, the quality of pho depends largely on the broth and cuts of beef. In Northern Vietnam, the broth is cultivated with beef bones, onions, star anise and a type of local cinnamon. The shavings of beef cook quickly in the broth and should melt in your mouth. After the French fled and the Vietnam War began, the flavours of pho began to spread south. Saigon adapted the signature dish with fresh bean sprouts, lime and Thai basil as last-minute accompaniments.
These fresh ingredients are what make pho the perfect spring dish. The fresh basil is akin to the shoots of new grass so irresistible at this time of year. With the bite of cold wind still in the air, the combination of hot broth and steaming noodles are perfect.
For the bold among us, cuts of tendon, tripe or brisket are available alongside the beef shavings. My first taste of tripe came at Pho 24 in Paris when my lover spooned it into my mouth and allowed me to begin chewing before telling me it was calf stomach. Being a tender age and a recent carnivore, my own stomach has not forgiven the moment easily, preferring to stick to the classic Pho Tai.
Brisket and tendon do not require as cultural a pallete. If you are trying for the first time, the menu at Pho Hoa (765 Fort Street) illustrates each cut of meat so you will know what to expect without surprise. Pho Vy (772 Fort Street) has a coveted window seat and Green Leaf Bistro is the new pho seller in town (1684 Douglas Street).
With spring fast upon us, there’s no time like the present to grab a hoodie, a pair of sneakers and a novel and head out for lunch. M