Sitting at a red plastic table in a busy roadside stall in Ho Chi Minh City, I greedily slurped up noodles from a bowl of aromatic soup. Around me, dozens of locals were huddled over their bowls of pho. Just a few metres away, a huge vessel of beef broth boiled away cheerily. I spent a moment observing the little pearls of fat glistening on the top of my soup, along with bright green slivers of spring onion. This is the pho I had been looking for.
I first tasted pho, a Vietnamese dish of soup, rice noodles, herbs, and meat, at a tiny restaurant on Oxford Street, London’s shopping mecca. In the fragrant steam rising from the beef broth, I detected notes of galangal, basil, and lemongrass, but I was fascinated by many more unknown aromas. It was unlike anything I had ever tasted. My culinary curiosity was piqued.
Earlier this year, I was visiting Ho Chi Minh City during the annual Tet or lunar New Year holidays, a special time for the Vietnamese. People clean and paint their houses, exchange gifts, honour their ancestors, conduct prayers, and prepare special meals. But rather than witnessing the celebrations, I was more keen on finding the best pho in town.
Ho Chi Minh City’s manic rhythms took a week to get used to: motorcycles crowd the streets, the air is rife with the cries of fishmongers and waiters at streetside restaurants. I skipped from one eatery to another, tasting local dishes like springrolls wrapped in rice paper, bo la lot (minced beef wrapped in betel leaves) and su’o’ng sá (grass jelly), recommended by cab drivers and hotel staff. But it was pho with which I was obsessed.
This street-food staple is said to have originated in the early 20th century in north Vietnam. When the country was partitioned in 1954 and millions of northerners fled south, they popularised pho in their new land. Today, it is common to see people wolfing down this steaming hot noodle soup that costs just 7,000-40,000 dong (₹20-₹115) at streetside stalls and restaurants.
My quest began at a stall in Ben Thanh Market, the city’s tourist hub. I watched as a young boy ladled simmering beef broth over a handful of noodles and meat and garnished it with coriander, chillies, and spring onion. While I enjoyed the meal, I suspected something better awaited me.
Next I went to Pho 24, a chain of restaurants, where I hoped to find someone who could explain the ritual of eating pho in English. The waiter obliged, answering all my questions while I devoured a bowlful. Pho is accompanied by garnishes like fresh herbs (holy basil, coriander, mint), chillies, and lime wedges that allow you to customise the dish to your taste. Armed with this newfound knowledge, I sampled the humble noodle soup at various places over the next few days—five-star hotels, streetside shacks, and well-known eateries.
On my last day in the city, I was still thinking about that elusive perfect bowl as I walked past some Buddhist pagodas. Dozens of the city’s infamous motorbikes drove past me as I stopped to drink a glass of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. When I was paying up I was pleasantly surprised to hear English, and so asked the lady at the stall my favourite question: Where would she go if she wanted to eat pho?
She pointed to a busy stall across the road. Within minutes I had found myself an empty seat. There were just two items on the menu—Pho Bo (beef ) and Pho Ga (chicken). I asked for beef, squeezed the wedge of lime, and tossed in some herbs. The subtle hint of ginger and sautéed onion lingered in the clear broth, and the herbs lent it an unmistakable freshness. I don’t know if it was the experience of eating at a bright red plastic table by the side of a crowded street or the rich meaty flavour of that broth that made it special. But to me, in that moment, the pho at that nameless stall in the alley was ambrosial.
Appeared in the April 2014 issue as “Soup Quest”.