Beef noodle soup, made of beef, broth, vegetables and Asian noodles, is often served as a fast food in China, where chains like Mr. Lee are popular.  In Taiwan it is considered a national dish, and the city of Taipei holds an annual Beef Noodle Festival in which chefs compete to create the best soup.  Variations exist throughout East and Southeast Asia, but perhaps the most interesting beef noodle soup story is in Vietnam.

Pho, the national soup of Vietnam, has a century long history.  Some have described the word pho (it rhymes with “duh”) as a Vietnamese corruption of the French word feu, or fire.  French colonials introduced pot au feu, the classic French boiled beef dish, to Vietnam during their occupation of the country, which began late in the 19th century.  Most experts propose that pho, which reflects both French and Chinese traditions, probably originated in north Vietnam, possibly in Hanoi, early in the 20th century as a simple combination of boiled beef, broth and noodles.

While pho makes use of local ingredients(rice noodles, for example), it differs from other Asian beef noodle soups because onions are browned before they are added to the broth, contributing both color and flavor to the soup.  Onions are roasted for a pot au feu to accomplish the same goals.  Before the French arrived in Vietnam, cows were valued as work animals, not a food source; adding a bit of boeuf to the soup pot provided a touch of French extravagance and flair.  A raw beef version (pho bo) appeared later, and chicken (pho ga) and pork (pho lon) versions were created during wartime when beef was scarce.

The Geneva Accords officially split Vietnam into two countries in 1954, and many North Vietnamese migrated south to avoid communism.  Pho, of course, moved with them and was warmly welcomed and generously embellished there.  The soup was newly garnished with basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime, and diners added hoisin sauce or hot sauce directly to their bowls. Pho’s migration continued to the United States with Vietnamese immigrants who came to the country following America’s ill-conceived War in Vietnam.  It quickly became popular with Americans and underwent some of the same changes new found wealth imposed on the cooking of other immigrant groups (see meatballs and spaghetti) American pho bowls are 30% larger than those you’re likely to encounter in Hanoi, and myriad beef options are available to each diner; you can garnish your soup with raw beef, stewed brisket, flank, tendon, tripe, meatballs or, in some cases, all of the above.  Such luxury remains uncommon in Vietnam and some, particularly those from the north, may be grateful for that, at least from a culinary perspective.

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