The Secret to Great Phở is the Spiced Broth: A Chat with Linh Trịnh about Vietnamese Food (AS 258)
This week, I decided to try something different. Rather than write my routine food history blogpost, I interviewed Linh Trinh, who knows a lot more about Vietnamese food history than me. As some of you asked for phở resources, I steered the interview specifically in that direction. Linh was kind enough to supply her gorgeous pictures of phở and some excellent recipe resources. So don't forget to read her blog!
If you are a student enrolled in ASIAN 258, you can access a recording of our twenty-minute conversation on March 10, 2021 from Canvas. What follows below are the highlights of our exchange, which I have edited for concision and clarity.
Miranda Brown: Thank you Linh for joining us in Food and Drink of Asia. Would you mind briefly introducing yourself to the class – and to all our unintended blog readers?
Linh Trinh: Hello everyone and thank you for having me. I am a PhD student in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures [at the University of Michigan]. I research Sino-Vietnamese culinary connections. My new blog is a place where I share some exciting research, as well as introduce Vietnamese food and recipes to the English-speaking world.
Miranda Brown: This week we’re getting to Vietnam belatedly. One of the main challenges of teaching Vietnamese food history is the dearth of English-language scholarship on the subject. So it’s great to hear from someone who not only knows Vietnamese food intimately, but also has the language chops to get us beyond the standard mythology. For many Americans, Vietnamese cuisine is familiar primarily through a few signature plates: bánh mì, spring/summer rolls, and phở. How do you feel about these foods dominating the popular American imagination of Vietnamese cuisine? Are there dishes that you wish got more attention from global eaters, and, if so, what would they be?
Linh Trinh: I think dishes like phở and spring rolls deserve global recognition, because they taste wonderful and are definitely staples in the Vietnamese diet. But if you limit yourself to those options, you're really missing out on a lot of good food. There are many other dishes that I would mention: Bún Thang, which is a chicken rice-noodle soup, and Bún Riêu, a crab-meat soup. There’s also savory crepes prepared with turmeric, which are called bánh xèo and Vietnamese beef steak, or bít tết as we call it in Vietnamese. The latter is really exciting (and totally *not* what you would think of when someone says 'steak.')
On a more controversial note: bánh mì, and phở are perhaps popular because they are "safe foods" -- they get attention because they are palatable to almost anyone. These recipe compose beef and bread, so how could you go wrong? It’s different from intestines and other foods [that Americans are wary of]. But people need to realize that Vietnam is a diverse country with a wide variety of regional cuisines.
Miranda Brown: Over the last two weeks, we’ve looked at how religious conversion and colonialism shaped Asian foodways. Specifically, we’ve paid a lot of attention to the Portuguese and English. Do you think that colonialism or religion is important for understanding Vietnamese food? If so, who were the actors? And what dishes show the influence of colonialism?
Linh Trinh: French colonialism [from the 1880s to 1940s] was big. You can’t understand Vietnamese food without realizing how differently people ate before and after colonialism. Bread was heavily tested within the colonial spaces of Indochina [first with Portuguese missionaries and later French colonial settlers]. Originally, we got bánh mì from Europeans. It's now a very central Vietnamese dish. Another interesting theory is that it wasn't until the American presence in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War [1955-1975] that people began putting stuffing like meat pickles and sauces inside the bread. It used to be the case that you would take a bite from the bread and meat separately. This practice actually survives in the northern part of Vietnam.
The problem with focusing solely on colonialism is that it leads to over-emphasizing the French contribution. The French are naturally famous for their cuisine. But there are other important dishes like bánh xèo, which has nothing to do with the French crepe (the process is similar; hence the comparison). This dish is also very popular in Cambodia and points to a different set of culinary influences than the French.
Miranda Brown: In our reading this week, we look at how popular writer Micheal Garval talks about the origins of phở, which is now arguably the national dish of Vietnam. He has trouble settling on the origins of the recipe, however. He thinks there’s a chance that phở is a loan word from French: Pot-au-feux (beef stew) became phở in Vietnamese. He says this scenario makes sense, because the Vietnamese did not consume much beef before the French colonial period. Then he offers a second possibility: namely, that phở is a local adaptation of a Chinese rice noodle soup. He suggests that phở is just a loan word, from the Chinese word for rice vermicelli, fun 粉 [Mandarin: fen].
In the past, when I lectured on this topic, I warned students away from the either/or approach. After all, many dishes [like Massaman curry] have layers upon layers of diverse culinary influences. Or to use this week's new key word, layered influence!
Linh Trinh: The debate is old. Yes, the beef *is* an important tell. It's also true that the Vietnamese did not really "do" beef before the French. But there is a Vietnamese equivalent to pot-au-feux which is bò hầm khoai tây (beef stew with potatoes), and it’s nothing like phở. Also, the Vietnamese were eating rice noodles long before the nineteenth century [which rules out the possibility of a very recent Chinese origin of the soup noodle].
But this debate overlooks the broth, which is really important. It has fish sauce, an ingredient native to Vietnam. The broth also has aromatic spices like star anise, black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and fennel seeds. The spices reflect the fact that Vietnam has a generous coastline: all the way from the border with China to the tip reaching out to Maritime Southeast Asia.
[Like Thailand], Vietnam historically participated in the Indian Ocean Spice Trade. So in terms of other societies, we were influenced not only by the Chinese, French, and Portuguese, but also by folks in Southeast Asia and well beyond. What makes phở unique is the fact that it didn't emerge from a vacuum. It is better to acknowledge the deep layers of influence.
Miranda Brown: So you are telling us to pay more attention to the spices and the Indian Ocean trade route? This is a more exciting story that the usual tale of Chinese or French influence.
Linh Trinh: I think so. The best thing about phở is *not* the beef or the noodle, but the spiced broth, which can be hard to replicate.
Miranda Brown: Our audience is going to be super excited about that, because they not only want to learn the history behind a dish, but also the secret to making great phở. Let me end this interview with a silly question: what is your favorite Vietnamese dish? What else should be on the students' bucket list?
Linh Trinh: Oh wow. I will probably disagree with myself and about a week. But I think it would be Bun Bo Hue.
I’ve asked Linh Trinh to provide us with guidance. For a bánh mì recipe, you should check out *her* blog, which will be the basis of the food lab next week! Since we discussed phở, she offers two recipe options. One is for the Instant Pot (and she recommends it), and the other is without.
Recipe Books and Cultural Background:
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Hot, Sour, Salt, Sweet: A Culinary Journal through Southeast Asia (Artisan, 2000).
Charles Phan, Vietnamese Home Cooking: [A Cookbook]. Ten Speed Press, 2012.
------The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food [A Cookbook]. Ten Speed Press, 2014.
Michael Garval, “French or Phở? in Wonders and Marvels: A Community for Curious Minds Who Love History, Its Odd Stories, and Good Reads.” Downloaded from http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2016/07/french-or-pho.html.
For Vietnam's place in the Indian Ocean Trade Route, see Kenneth R. Hall, A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), Chapter 2.
For a possible culinary flow that went from Vietnam to China (as opposed to the reverse), see Chan Yuk Wah, "Banh Cuon and Cheung Fan: Searching for the Identity of the "Steamed Rice Roll," in Tan Chee Beng ed., Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond (NUS Press, Singapore, 2011), 156-71.