Secret Pho

The devious, subversive, and anti-authoritarian history of Vietnamese comfort food.

Andrea Nguyen was only six years old when her family was forced to flee their Saigon home in the midst of the Vietnam War. In her handbag, Nguyen’s mother packed a stack of family photos, a few bottles of water, instant noodle packages, and her book of Vietnamese recipes. These items speak to a prioritization of what felt valuable in a tense moment. Water is a given. The other items—the family photos, recipes, and even the instant noodles, to a certain degree—carry a cultural weight. Each item is useful on its own, but together they seem to bridge a gap between where Nguyen’s family came from and where they were headed. These things helped bring a level of comfort during an uncertain period in their lives.

Today, Nguyen is considered a leading voice in Asian cuisine as a cooking teacher, consultant, and author of five Vietnamese cuisine cookbooks. (Her latest, The Pho Cookbook, was published in February 2017). She shared this story as we discussed the connection between stress and comfort food—particularly Vietnam’s well-known pho noodle soup. While meant to be an aside, this very personal story seemed to parallel the history and significance of pho within both Vietnamese and Western cultures.

Pho has a small but noteworthy set of defining characteristics. Typically, its base is a broth made from beef bones and flavoured with fish sauce, star anise, and cinnamon (among other spices). There are thin slices of a lesser-valued cut of beef, and the noodles are made only from rice flour. In the North, the noodles are flat and wide, while in the South, they are skinny. But regardless of region, pho isn’t pho without noodles made from rice.

And this is where the history gets complex. In the 1950s, the Communist party took control of many businesses, including pho street stalls, for the sake of social reform. At the same time, the Soviet Union had started sending food aid to Vietnam, which included a sizable amount of potato and wheat flour. With this influx of flour, the state decreed that all noodles in Vietnam must be made of potato or wheat flour, in an attempt to avoid wasting its rice supply. Without getting into the very passionate, yet subtle philosophies that guide which Asian noodles belong in which Asian dishes, it was clear this noodle swap was a big deal. People weren’t happy. Vendors lost money. They weren’t going to take this lying down.

In dire times, what gives people some kind of hope and comfort is food. That comfort contrasts whatever stresses you’re enduring at that moment.

“To get a good bowl of pho, vendors began circulating a list to their customers of secret pho locations and instructions for ordering the real stuff,” Nguyen explains. “They would, in code, state to the vendor, ‘I would like a bowl of soup with potato-flour noodles.’” A quiet agreement was created in that moment. The vendor would then serve from a secret stash of rice noodles, and the customer would eat them as fast as humanly possible to lessen the chances of being caught by authorities policing street carts. And, just like that, secret pho was born.

Today, most of us slurping a bowl of pho at our favourite spot likely aren’t thinking about the complex (and at times, deeply political) history that brought this dish to our table. For most of us, it’s simply Vietnamese comfort food. But regardless of the differences between the tumultuous past and our everyday modern hurdles, the base emotional connection to pho likely hasn’t changed as much as we think. Explains Nguyen, “It just goes to show you that in dire times, what gives people some kind of hope and comfort is food. That comfort contrasts whatever stresses you’re enduring at that moment.”