- 2012elections - 9/11 Special Coverage - aca - africanamericanalzheimers - aids - Alabama News Network - american - Awards & Expo - bees - bilingual - border - californiaeducation - Caribbean - cir - citizenship - climatechange - collgeinmiami - community - democrats - ecotourism - Elders - Election 2012 - elections2012 - escuelas - Ethnic Media in the News - Ethnicities - Events - Eye on Egypt - Fellowships - food - Foreclosures - Growing Up Poor in the Bay Area - Health Care Reform - healthyhungerfreekids - howtodie - humiliating - immigrants - Inside the Shadow Economy - kimjongun - Latin America - Law & Justice - Living - Media - memphismediaroundtable - Multimedia - NAM en Espaol - Politics & Governance - Religion - Richmond Pulse - Science & Technology - Sports - The Movement to Expand Health Care Access - Video - Voter Suppression - War & Conflict - 攔截盤查政策 - Top Stories - Immigration - Health - Economy - Education - Environment - Ethnic Media Headlines - International Affairs - NAM en Español - Occupy Protests - Youth Culture - Collaborative Reporting

Ph(o)netics: The Diaspora of a Beef Soup

New America Media, Blog , Andrew Lam Posted: Oct 07, 2009

Pho, that ingenious Vietnamese concoction, is an incomparable and sacred broth. Spiced with roasted star anise, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, charred ginger and onion, and made savory by fish sauce, the soup is brewed in a low heat until the beef falls off the bone and the marrow seeps. Pho inspires passion, and is as endemic to Vietnamese culture as the Vietnamese language itself. But since the Vietnam War ended, the soup, too, has become a global ph(o)nomenon.

So much so that among my own clan, whenever we gather from all over the US, Canada, France and England -- to celebrate a wedding, say, or mourn the passing of a relative -- pho-talk often tops the list of our conversation. I was in Athens last year and guess what? Someone would start and someone else would rise to the challenge. And so would begin the rowdy banters and tall tales.

It is a kind of game of one-upmanship, both to show off our new cosmopolitan sheen and to marvel how far weve come since our initial expulsion from our beloved homeland as refugees. For within the culinary experience is the theme of our journey itself. Cousin B, the rowdy kid back home, has become a manager for a big high tech company and travels widely. He has eaten pho in Rio de Janeiro. Aunt J, who lives in France, has eaten pho in Tanzania.

Friends and relatives have eaten pho in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jakarta, Mexico City, Paris, London, Melbourne, Seoul, Bangkok, and yes, even far-flung Dubai and Johannesburg. We gossip. We tell pho stories, often while savoring the soup. Its as if knowing of another far-flung city that serves our once national treasure brings comfort to our sense of nostalgia, and appeases our hope for prosperity. Wherever theres Vietnamese, theres pho:

In Ubud, Bali, Vietnamese pho has taken on a delicate taste. Served with fresh snow peas and a wedge of lime and no other garnish to speak off, except a sprig of an amazingly spicy and fragrant basil, its a delight, especially when the waitress blesses the soup with a white orchid to enhance the spirit of the broth.

I happened to be in this outskirt area of Sydney and read about a museum that was putting up an I (heart) Pho exhibition. It took me a second to realize that it was an exhibition of our soup. Can you believe it? So I went, of course. They served pho inside the museum and even imported a Pho stall from Saigon to reconstruct it inside the musem. Then I saw teacher P. from Le Qui Don high school. Can you believe it? Of course, we ate pho together. So far from Saigon, but there we were, teacher and student, three decades later, sitting on a wooden bench, slurping, laughing, just like old times except we were on another continent.

In Nargakot, Nepal, high above the clouds, theres this hotel that sometimes serves pho on some weekends. Beef is not available but buffalo meat is used. The meat is a little bit chewy. But with such clear air and strong wind, everyone, the tourists, the people in tow -- everyone knows when theyre making pho, even the bloody yetis.

Ok. I was craving for pho so badly after a year working in Namibia. Theres no Vietnamese around to speak of, except -- I know, I know god strike me down for what Im about to say - the Vietnamese commies embassy. One day I walked by and the smell of pho wafted. Mind you I hate them commies. They sent my father to the re-education camp and I was a boat person myself. But tell you what -- I couldnt help it. I salivated like a dog and found myself ringing their bell. Asked if I could buy a bowl of pho from them. This is how pathetic I was. And this guy, real young, 30s the most, laughed and said, Brother. Why dont you come in and eat with us, I hesitated for a second. And went in. Im not proud of it. But some things transcend politics.

Did you hear the story about a pho place in Antartica? This Vietnamese woman, right, shes married to a scientist and they lived there and among the tundra and glaciers and penguins she grew bored. So one day

Have broth, will travel? So, heres mine

...I was young then, barely out of college. While backpacking through Europe, I was invited to an excursion by a friend from Berkeley, my alma mater, who knew someone who lived in a castle in Belgium. Its a surprise, she told me and said nothing more. We got off a train in the middle of nowhere north of Brussels. And walked for half an hour. We passed pastures and ranches and then we entered a wood. Then, there it was, a castle with its drawbridge across a moat. There were roman statues on the lawn. I remember stopping on the drawbridge and sniffed. I hadnt expected it. But there it was, that complex aroma wafting in the air cinnamon and cloves and fish sauce and star anise and beef broth. Someone was making pho!

In that summer afternoon, standing over a moat with my friend beckoning me to enter the castle, that sweet aroma seemed to have wafted across several continents. Smelling it, I had something close to an out of body experience. The fragrance of home had superimposed itself on a new landscape, and all at once I was happy and I felt (though I wouldnt admit it to myself for a few more years) that I wanted to become a writer, if only to try, in vain, to capture that delightful sense of transnational dislocation.

I followed my friend down the stone steps to an enormous kitchen, one that could easily fit 30 chefs. At its far end stood an elegant Asian woman in her mid 30s. She greeted us with a gracious smile and she spoke in Vietnamese. There you are! Ive been waiting and waiting. I thought the two of you got lost in the wood.

As she fed us her pho soup, she told me her story. Once a high school teacher in Saigon, she'd lost her job after the war. One night she and her sister fled in a crowded boat out to sea. A Belgian merchant vessel picked everyone up and brought the lot back to Belgium. Impoverished, she and her sister resorted to living in the basement of a church in a town outside Brussels. One day, a local baron, who had hoped to become a priest, saw her while praying in church. They looked at each other. He fell instantly in love. She was hesitant. But they married. Now the mother of two children of noble blood, she would sometimes catch glimpses of herself as she glided past the gilded mirrors along the old castles corridors and shudder, wondering, who is that? Is that me? Other times, when entertaining European royalty, she feels as if she's on a movie set, waiting for the director to yell, Cut!

The Campbell soup company took pho mainstream in 2002 by canning a prepared broth and aiming it at mainstream eateries. Even Food Network has chefs teaching its audience how to make pho. But just where did this pho come from? Whats almost certain is that it came from North Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, about a century ago. What is less certain is how. Seminars on the dish have scholars from all over the world arguing whether the word came from the French word feu (fire) as in the dish pot-au-feu --or whether it descended from the word Fen-- Chinese for rice noodle. Star anise, native to southwest China, is used in combination with Vietnamese fish sauce to give it its distinct flavor, but French onion is also used to sweeten the broth. Cardamom comes from India but noodle is definitely Chinese. Yet in Vietnam, beef was rarely used until the French came in the late 1800s.

It may sound like a contradiction when a dish said to be distinctly Vietnamese has both French and Chinese influences, not to mention South Asian, but it isnt. Feu or Fen, pho is indelibly Vietnamese because it incorporates foreign influences. Like the country whose history is one of being conquered by foreign powers, and its people, who must constantly adapt to survive, the soup has its roots in many heritages, yet it retains a distinctive Vietnamese taste.

Long ago in parochial Dalat, that lovely hill station the French built on a plateau full of pine trees, I would wake up on the weekend with that exquisite aroma of pho permeating our villa. Downstairs in my mothers kitchen, the clattering sounds of dishes and bowls and chopsticks were welcome music to the ear. Serenity in the salty dawn; I close my eyes, and in spite of the years, I can still hear it: mother singing softly downstairs, her ladles clattering against the pots and pans, and the steady chopping sounds of the cleaver on the worn wooden block.

That insular world has irrevocably changed and can now only be had in the recalling. Sometimes I lie in bed and I feel myself a boy, imagine my mother downstairs and my father coming home from the war front. So many of us have scattered. Already I am middle age. But the middle age man takes comfort in knowing that this delectable pho aroma has permeated the world.

Andrew Lam is author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and the upcoming East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres

Page 1 of 1




Just Posted

NAM Coverage

Arts & Entertainment