One of the coolest projects that my darling wife S and I enjoyed working on last year was the development of a series of public programs on food and culture for the National Museum of Singapore. All of the courses last year were sold out and all were loads of fun. We ran chocolate tastings with Valrhona’s regional pastry chef; had a bespoke mixologist run through the history of cocktails, accompanied by tastings of course; ran a very well-attended modern etiquette workshop; and got famed local foodie Christopher Tan to speak about the different ways that a mortar and pestle are used in Southeast Asian cuisine.
This April, we’re launching a whole new line-up of programs for 2008. Some of the most popular – like our chocolate tasting – will be repeated, but for the most part, many are brand new. Several are also tangentially linked to exhibitions that the Museum will be organizing. The very first event this year is titled “The Story of Phở, The Story of a Nation”.
I don’t know about you guys, but I love Phở. It’s a wonderful dish which, I have learnt over the years, has a rich history. For this inaugural lecture, we’ve invited one of the world’s foremost experts on Phở, Mr Cuong Phu Le, to fly up to Singapore from Australia, where he’s based, to speak about this beloved noodle soup dish.
Cuong, pictured above, is an amazing guy. He loves Phở so much that he has even created a multi-disciplinary project called I LOVE PHO that is currently on tour around Australia. It will be presented as the major project to reopen the newly renovated Casula Powerhouse, an arts centre in New South Wales, in 2009. In the project, Phở will be examined and interpreted through literature, the visual arts, film, performance, a food festival and a symposium. To produce this cross-cultural project, the Casula Powerhouse will bring together a distinguished group of cultural professionals including researchers, writers, academics, cooking instructors, filmmakers, performers, visual artists, businesses, community members, writers, curators and Phở lovers of Vietnamese backgrounds and from different corners of the world. The project may go on a tour around the world thereafter.
We’re really thrilled that Cuong is taking some time to come to Singapore to speak. His lecture is being held on Friday, 11 April, at 7pm. During the one hour talk, he will demonstrate how the story of Phở actually mirrors that of Vietnam’s own development. Cuong will present a general survey of the origin, development, expansion and transformation of Phở, along with Vietnam’s historical trajectories from colonialism to modern day.
I had the chance to chat with Cuong briefly last week. What he has to say about Phở is really faschinating.
CH: Have you always loved Phở? What is your earliest memory of this dish?
Cuong: Phở is so common and ubiquitous in Viet Nam that I used to take it for granted. Like most Vietnamese, we only become mad about Phở when we are displaced physically and spiritually.
I can’t actually recall my earliest memory. The memories I most cherish are more recent, during my research for the I LOVE PHỞ project. I spent three hot summer months in Viet Nam travelling from South to North and eating Phở everyday with the mission of searching for the best Phở in Viet Nam. After one month of eating Phở every day, one day I just realised that I was in utopia. I also realised you could not find the same bowl of Phở in different shops … like the old saying, “You can never step in the same river twice.”
CH: But, on that journey, did you find any one Phở that was better than all the others? Would you be willing to recommend one specific place?
Cuong: That’s a difficult question. Let me share something interesting with you instead of answering you directly.
Interestingly, in Vietnam, no one really cooks Phở at home– they don’t know how and they feel no need to learn. Outside Vietnam, however, immigrants have begun to prepare the dish at home – exchanging cooking tips, discussing ingredients, with the hope of bringing a little bit of home into their “life in exile”.
Thus, if you are in Viet Nam, people could show you to a specific Phở place without problem. On the contrary, in Australia, for instance, people tend not to tell you any specific place because they think their home-made Phở is the best.
CH: One friend told me that the name “Phở” comes from the French “pot au feu”. Is this true? And if so, does that mean Phở is actually a fusion dish?
Cuong: That’s another difficult question because the origin of the name “ Phở” is still being debated up to now, even in Viet Nam.
There is one speculation that the dish was of Chinese origin – once prepared with typically Chinese ingredients such as noodles, ginger and star anise. Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a Vietnamese scholar, believes that the name Phở derives from the Mandarin Chinese “fen” (pronounced “phan”), used to announce the arrival of a hawker as in “Nguu nhuc phan”. (“Nguu”– “cow or buffalo”, “nhuc” – “meat”,and “phan” – “rice paste”). Vietnamese hawkers, he argues, would not call out “phân” which in Vietnamese means “excrement”. Thus, they dropped the final “n” and created a new word ‘Phở’.
But there are other speculations. According to Nguyen Dinh Rao, a president of UNESCO’s Gastronomy Club in Hanoi, the name Phở came from an earthenware oven known as a “coffre-feu” in French. When customers spied a hawker bearing a wooden beam holding a bucket on either end with a charcoal stove underneath, they would shout, “Hey! Feu!” (Fire!). The hawker responded “Oui ! Feu!” without understanding what Feu is. Through continuous repetition, the appelation may have lead to the name we use today.
To back Mr Rao up, Didier Corlou, a French-born former Executive Chef at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi and also the organiser of a major seminar on Phở held in Hanoi in 2003, agrees with the French connection. He pointed out the resemblance between the soup and the French dish, pot-au-feu. The act of grilling onion and mature ginger for the base of Phở broth is similar to the method used in French cooking to impart colour and taste to a dish of meat and vegetables simmered in a rich-tasting broth.
Phở is a fusion food at its birth. Phở is a blend of French/Chinese/Vietnamese and more that has captured so many flavours and textures. To produce this cultural fusion, take the broth cooking with grilled ginger and onion (like French does); mix them with exotic spices including star anise, cinnamon, cardomom (like Chinese does); add Vietnamese fish sauce and simmer it slowly for years of Chinese influence, French colonisation, the American/Vietnam War, Communism, Transnational movement, Integration, Mass tourism, Capitalism and Globalisation. Phở at the end becomes so varied no two bowls of Phở are really ever the same. In the process, it has become a global dish!
CH: Why do you think Phở has become so popular internationally? What about it makes it so appealing to so many people of different backgrounds and cultures?
Cuong: There are also a lot of answers to that question. Here are just two that might suffice.
Deborah Upton suggests, “The search for new taste sensations and eating experiences is considered a means of improving oneself, adding ‘value’ and a sense of excitement to life”. Thus, Phở’s popularity comes as no surprise in an era when “Whatever’s ethnic one day becomes chic and public culture in the next”.
Secondly, Phở contains in itself traits that appeals to modern society: individualism, convenience, interactive, options and speed. That demand is well expressed in the sentence by one Phở addict on the Internet. “I like doctoring the stuff until I achieve the optimum effect: brightened with squeezes of lime or lemon; charged with tiny cartwheels of jalapeno; crackling with bean sprouts; herbed with mint or basil from the plate of greenery that comes alongside. Not only do I end up with a universe in a bowl — salad, pasta, meat, soup, a kaleidoscope of texture and flavor — it is a universe of my own making. What, in this narcissistic age, could be more gratifying?” (from an eGullet.org, Phở forum discussion)
CH: How can you tell if a Phở that you’ve been served is good or bad? What should a great Phở have?
Cuong: I am not a chef. I am only a person who goes around to collect stories relating to Phở.
But there are a few irrefutable golden rules.The broth has to be clear, honest and sweet smelling. It should have the aroma of beef and beef bones and be steaming hot to the touch.The rice noodles should be thin, soft; yet firm.The added beef must be cooked, tender and sweet smelling. It must be attractively presented with garnishes of harmonious colour.
Anyway rules or not rules, as Vietnamese and foodies, we know good Phở when we taste it.
Tickets for The Story of Pho, the Story of a Nation (Friday, 11 April, 7pm) can be booked online at www.nationalmuseum.sg (go to Online Booking Page) or at the Visitor Services Counter at the National Museum of Singapore (93 Stamford Road Singapore 178897). Tickets are S$10 each. To go straight to the booking page, click here