With entire restaurant chains dedicated to the seemingly simple Vietnamese soup pho (pronounced fuhr), it’s safe to say the dish has taken hold in the UK. With its flavourful spicy broth, silky thick rice noodles, various chunks of beef and a plethora of garnishes added right before eating, we’ve fallen head over heels in love with the stuff. While it’s been popular since the late 1970s in the US, it took a little longer for it to make its way to the high streets of Britain. Today, however, we can order a bowl from a Vietnamese restaurant or even cook it at home using ready-to-cook kits from the supermarkets. But how did this noodle soup, born out of necessity in a (until recently) relatively secretive Asian country, come to have such a demand in the West?
For the national dish of Vietnam, the origins of pho are quite hard to pin down. What we do know is that it appeared around the same time the French conquered Vietnam in the 1880s – before then cows were never slaughtered for meat as they were too valuable as working animals in the rice fields. It was certainly an established dish by 1910, when a French official commissioned artwork depicting everyday life in Hanoi; several of the pieces referenced street vendors selling pho. Today, it’s generally agreed that pho began as nothing more than a bowl of broth with noodles and beef, and was popularised by Chinese who had travelled to Hanoi from Yunnan looking for work. As the city grew so did the number of pho street vendors, and it quickly became a popular dish.
The name of the soup itself could come from many sources. The full name for ‘beef and rice noodles’ in Vietnamese is nguu nhuc phan, which might have been shortened to pha or pho by competitive street vendors. It could also have come from the French word feu (fire), a theory that’s backed up by the fact that onion and ginger is charred before being boiled in the broth – a technique also used in the classic French dish pot au feu.