The staple breakfast for the Vietnamese is noodle soup, or pho. But it's made from rice flour, and the recent price hikes are hitting the poor. Plus, Hanoi's fusion food heroby Alex Renton / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
Pho and the price of rice
Breakfast in Hanoi is best eaten on the pavement. Around five o’clock every morning, the sellers of pho (to pronounce it, say “fur” gently), Vietnam’s noodle soup, trundle their stalls by bicycle or moped through the waking streets. Usually middle-aged women, they set up on corners or in front of office doors. There they unload their fresh rice noodles, bundles of garlic greens, mint and bean sprouts, mounds of finely sliced beef or chicken, and the vat of stock—the secret of a great pho—straw gold, delicate, flavoured perhaps with star anise and cinnamon and who knows what else. The stallholders’ individual recipes are jealously guarded, and their customers loyal.
The Hanoiese gather round in the steam from the pho pots on tiny plastic stools, like those you’d find in a nursery. They drink a green tea only a shade paler than the soup itself. By 9am, or when the noodles are finished, most of the pho ladies pack up and bicycle away, leaving the streets clear for the day’s business.
Most of east Asia eats noodle soup for breakfast. The Thai version is muscular, the deep brown stock made from beef bones, the noodles as wide as your thumb and the soup (at my favourite Bangkok stall) fortified with Mekong-brand “whisky.” It’s great for hangovers. But in north Vietnam the stock is much lighter and the tastes far more subtle.
Pho is north Vietnam’s signature dish, and the Vietnamese are proud of it in a rather chauvinistic way. “Any other than Vietnamese can not feel all the deliciousness and quintessence of this special dish…” reads a flyer for a Hanoi pho shop chain that I picked up. So they object to the most likely explanation of the dish’s name—that it derives from French colonial times. Back then, it’s said, soup sellers patrolled the streets with two baskets dangling from a yoke over their shoulders, one holding the noodles and other ingredients, the other a little brazier of hot coals. “Feu” (fire) they would shout, both as warning and advertisement.
Like the other rice-dependent nations in the region, Vietnam has been stunned by the food price rises—inflation hit 25 per cent here in June. They seem all the more unjust because there is no shortage of rice in the region: Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam all produce surpluses, and the latter two are the world’s…