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An appreciation for Pho

This photo courtesy of http://eatvancouver.net

This photo courtesy of http://eatvancouver.net

Someone was dissing the classic Vietnamese noodle dish Pho on a mailing list and I was compelled to come to its defense. Fueling the fire was the fact that Tony Bourdain was waxing eloquent about it as he is wont to do and so, here’s my response to someone’s observation that he found Pho “boring”.

I wasn’t going to comment on this because, well, different strokes for different folks, I suppose. But I was finishing the “Food Porn” episode of No Reservations that I mentioned in the thread about Pulling Mussels (From a Shell). I had only watched the first couple of segments and lo and behold, in one of the last segments, Bourdain was again talking about his passion for Pho. He claims that while there might be dishes as good in the great European kitchens, there’s nothing better. And I’d have to agree with him. The oddly constructed meatballs throw you off? I can see that. Tripe trip you out, and not in a good way? Sure, I sympathize. Tendon gives you suicidal tendencies? It is something you’ve got to get used to, but it can be left out if one isn’t inclined. But boring? Hardly. Maybe if you don’t know what to do with that plate of Thai basil, perilla, cilantro, sprouts and lime. Maybe if you don’t use that incredible nectar that is fish sauce. Maybe if you are afraid of the Sriracha and sambal on the table and you fish out the large bias-cut jalapeños or fresh chili pepper of choice that you inevitably find swimming around, lurking under the brisket. Maybe the natural Western tendency to avoid slurping, which is actually essential to the enjoyment of the dish is
an impediment to enjoying the dish. To me, it’s almost the ultimate comfort food. Every bite, slurp and spoonful is different, especially if you customize the Pho as you go. I never just dump everything in.
The tearing of the leaves is a continual process so that there is always some fresh leaf left for the last bit. A little squirt of Sriracha here, a demitasse spoon of sambal there, a squirt of the lime and a dash of the fish sauce, some fresh sprouts and a little float of the basil, and I have a taste that is unique to that little quadrant of the soup. Confronting the fresh bias-cut pepper at the right point is always important to me as well. You can’t hit it too soon or too late or it overwhelms the rest of the meal. To me, it’s almost like I’m an extension of the chef – I’m continuing to “cook” the dish. It requires constant attention and to me, this automatically means that it can’t be boring. And everyone has a different way of attacking and enjoying it. Some might very well go for the pepper first in order to get an explosion of heat right off the back. Others might be more circumspect in their seasoning and eschew the hot condiments entirely and fish out the jalapeño immediately or ask for it to be left out. It’s an ultimate customizable dish.

The last thing I love about it as a comfort food is that it’s filling but not filling. It’s the zen of food in a way.

4 responses to “An appreciation for Pho

  1. Mark S April 29, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Hear, hear! Pho is a beautiful thing. Here they give you cut red chilies instead of jalapenos – I suspect the regional variations are based on what ingredients are available in your area. Had a place that made a beautiful pho near my last job; I have to make a pilgrimage back there soon…

  2. Pingback: Foodie Friday on Sunday § Unqualified Offerings

  3. gcallah August 25, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    “Maybe the natural Western tendency to avoid slurping, which is actually essential to the enjoyment of the dish is an impediment to enjoying the dish.”

    This isn’t a “tendency,” it’s a rule of polite dining. (Perhaps not in Vietnam, but, then, you weren’t eating this in Vietnam, were you?) Slurping disgusts those around you who have been brought up in well-mannered homes. And, I assure you, having eaten pho many times without slurping, there is nothing “essential” about it at all.

  4. teleburst August 25, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    “This isn’t a “tendency,” it’s a rule of polite dining. (Perhaps not in Vietnam, but, then, you weren’t eating this in Vietnam, were you?)”

    I’ve always either eaten it in my home or in a Vietnamese restaurant. Slurping is fine, if not applauded in both of those locales (at least for pho). In fact, I daresay that slurping might even peg one as someone who “knows the score”.

    “Slurping disgusts those around you who have been brought up in well-mannered homes”.

    Well, hopefully, I won’t be eating pho around them.

    ” And, I assure you, having eaten pho many times without slurping, there is nothing “essential” about it at all”.

    You might try it sometime. C’mon – cut loose! I think that imposing your artificial Western standards on pho has hindered you in this regard. And frankly, I also eat ribs with my fingers, which disgusts some in “well-mannered homes”. So, I guess my invitation to your house for tea is going to be slow in coming.

    But I get your point. You can certainly enjoy pho however you like. You can enjoy it through a straw, you can enjoy it in a cocktail. You can enjoy it frozen. Who am *I* to tell you how to enjoy it? That was sort of my point about the dish – it’s whatever what you make it. If you want to eat it with a knife and fork and be careful not to make any sound, more power to you.

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