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A pho primer with the world’s leading authority on Vietnamese cooking

Photo: Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Photo: Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Andrea Nguyen is the foremost English-speaking voice of Vietnamese gastronomy in the world, and her 2006 book Into The Vietnamese Kitchen was a landmark tome in demystifying the country’s sophisticated culinary culture to the Western world. Her new book, The Pho Cookbook, focuses on its namesake dish—the Vietnamese noodle soup—and I learned more about it reading through the book one afternoon than I did in 25 years obsessively hovering over steamy bowls of beef, broth, and noodles. In our conversation, Nguyen walked me through all the soup’s wondrous, soul-soothing properties and how to get the most out of your pho-eating experience.

Learn to make Andrea Nguyen’s recipe for quick beef pho here.

The A.V. Club: Take me to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). We decide to go out for pho. Paint me a picture.

Andrea Nguyen: I’d take you in the early morning at 7:30 a.m. There’s a shop I like called Pho Le. We’d pull up on a motorbike, and these guys will valet it. They won’t give us a number, they’ll just remember who you are and which bike is yours. Pho Le is a storefront. Imagine a two- to three-car garage—that’s what you’re stepping into. At the front there’s a stand where you can take a look at the broth and what’s being assembled, and there’s not going to be a lot of options, but you can see how they’re making the bowls. There’s two levels at Pho Le. If we’re seated on the second level, someone will take your order, write it on a very tiny piece of paper, and they’ll throw this tiny piece of paper from the second floor and somehow it lands downstairs, and they’ll take the order. Within minutes they’ll deliver the bowl, and we would dive in, and we’d be sweaty, a little humid. Saigon is either hot or super hot. But eating pho in the morning not only gives you food to warm you up, it also strangely cools you down the rest of the day. Pho is not just for winter—it’s really year-round food.

The Pho Cookbook (Photo: Karen Shinto/Ten Speed Press)

AVC: You can’t have pho without a side of iced Vietnamese coffee. Why do the two co-exist?

AN: That’s just the quintessential breakfast for a lot of people. Coffee does give your body a jolt. In Saigon it’s great because you have it on ice with condensed milk, and it cools with the hot broth. You leave the shop with a crazy buzz.

AVC: What gives Vietnamese coffee its distinction?

AN: Vietnamese coffee tends to be a dark roast, and sometimes they’ll use a bit of butter flavoring to give it a caramel quality. With condensed milk, that’s definitely a vestige of colonialism. Cow’s milk is not readily available in Vietnam. Condensed milk was a great introduction and people really took to it. It’s sweet, shelf stable, and you can keep it at room temperature. And it’s not just to make coffee, but I grew up with it on toast. My grandfather ate baguette dipped into condensed milk.

AVC: I know the Vietnamese are obsessed with a brand of coffee called Trung Nguyen, which I’ve seen Stateside.

AN: It’s the Starbucks of Vietnam. What we get here in the U.S. is their everyday coffee, and it’s good. It works really well with condensed milk, because it’s bitter with the chicory—a bit like Cafe Du Monde’s coffee. I imagine the popularity of that arose with a Vietnamese population growing up in New Orleans.

Andrea Nguyen, author of The Pho Cookbook. (Photo: Genevieve Pierson)

AVC: What I learned from your book is the difference between pho in Northern and Southern Vietnam.

AN: So the pho place we’d go to in Saigon? It’s large, roomy, and clean. In Hanoi, it’s smaller than a New York apartment—like a half-car garage. There it tends to be a bit more ramshackle. In the North you don’t get much in terms of a hedgerow of garnishes—if you’re lucky, you’ll get a small plate of bean sprouts, chiles, and mint. Rarely in Hanoi would you get the abundance that the South represents. Hanoi pho is pure, and their bowls are smaller. You savor the pho, and you think about the broth, and you don’t squirt a bunch of chili or hoisin sauce. If you do squirt something, it tends to be lime, or better yet, you put this garlic vinegar they keep on the table—and it adds just the right touch of tartness.

Northern Vietnamese food tends to favor the savory over sweetness. They also put emphasis on black cardamom, and it has this medicinal fragrance to it. In the South, they may use black cardomam in the broth, too, but they might tone it down with sweet spices such as cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and some rock sugar, too. In the North, they’d argue, “We want a delicate broth.” In the South, it’s “We want it big and bodacious.”

I have relatives who live in the North and South. My cousin and his friends from the North would say about [Southern Vietnamese pho], “Their broth is so sweet! The Southerners put all these foreign plants!” And when you go to the South, they’ll say, “The Northern bowls are so small and so bland!”

AVC: So are the Vietnamese pho restaurants in the U.S. more in the style of the South?

AN: In the U.S., it started out being more Saigon style, and I think it still is. The reason being most refugees fleeing Vietnam flew by way of the South. Now if you go into a pho shop, and you’re savvy with your Vietnamese ear, you can listen in and guess what their pho is going to be like. Or, if the shop has “Bac” in its name, which means north [like Pho Bac], you’re more likely to find a Hanoi-style pho.

AVC: What’s the proper way to pronounce pho? It doesn’t sound like “foe,” correct?

AN: In the Vietnamese language, the “O” in pho contains two diacritics. One is a side hook, like a cowlick. There’s also a question mark above the “O.” You should state the word as an interrogative—“fuhh?” You need to draw out that “uhhh.”

A pho stand in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (Photo: Andia/UIG via Getty Images)

AVC: If I visit a pho restaurant, how can I judge the quality of the bowl? What traits should I look for?

AN: When I walk into a pho shop, I want to think, “This smells like a good place.” The spices in the broth, the raw onions, the cilantro—it all should come together and fill up the room. The bowl ought to come out hot. The broth should have some clarity, though it shouldn’t be super-duper clear. Once you stir up the noodles, it should release some starch and make it a bit cloudy. I like to put my head over the bowl and take in the aromas. I’m also looking at the garnishes—one of the things that makes me crazy is if a restaurant uses jalapeño. I know it’s a big chile and it doesn’t wilt, but most of the time there’s no heat. You might as well use a bell pepper. If a restaurant used serrano, I’d think, “Someone’s paying attention.”

AVC: Do you have a preferred way of eating pho?

AN: What you want to remember about pho is it’s the ultimate have-it-your-way food. You can order it with whatever you want; you can even order it without noodles. When it’s presented to you, taste the broth first. I like a bit of black pepper—oftentimes pho shops don’t add that in the kitchen, and it’s a different kind of heat from chiles. Then I’d add, depending on what you want, the garnishes. Bean sprouts can go in the bowl, but you don’t have to put the whole thing in. With the herbs, remember they’re not trees, so you’re going to have to pluck the leaves off the stems with your fingers. If the leaves are huge, tear it off in small pieces. When you have that stripped herb stem left in your hand, you don’t want to put it back on the produce platter. Just put it on the table—it’s okay. I like a squirt of lime in there if the broth is a little on the sweet side. If things are needing a bit of umami burst, add the fish sauce. Pour a little into your spoon, then add it to the bowl.

I like to take my chopsticks and spoon and do a two-handed approach to attacking the bowl. With Vietnamese food, we eat with both hands and elbow on the table. If I don’t put my arms on the table, my mom would say, “Where’s your hand?” Otherwise no one knows what you’re doing with your arms under the table.

So you’ve got spoon in one hand, chopsticks in the other. You stir, because the noodles are stuck at the bottom of the bowl, so you need to loosen the noodles. I’m not a proponent of squirting sriracha or hoisin sauce in a bowl. If I spend three hours on making a great bowl of pho, I don’t want to obliterate it with sriracha—I worked really hard to make my pho clear. It’s like adding ketchup to chicken noodle soup. What I’d do with those two sauces is I take a small dish and make a yin-yang pattern, then dip meat in there. Pho has nuance and personality, and I want to experience that.