When I was in elementary school, my favorite breakfast food was Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that comprises of flat rice noodle, beef broth, various different types of seasonings and vegetables. I liked my Pho to be hot, served with sriracha, two pieces of lime, and thin-sliced papaya salad/pickles. It would literally take me an hour to finish my breakfast because first it was hot; second, we ate it with chopsticks(not folk) and a spoon, and I was just 5-7 years old. My mom hated me for taking lots of her time and money wasting on breakfast, but sorry I was the only child at the time, and my dad did not stay with us because of his job. So I was super spoiled. I insisted on eating Pho every morning, and my mom would complain every morning as well. Our day started with a mom-daughter quarrel over what to eat for breakfast and when to wake up for almost two years. I was a strong-headed and chubby daughter who over-consumed fatty and highly- sugar-concentrated foods. It was part of my life in a small town in Vietnam, where I found my childhood pretty boring but safe.
When I came to America, my love and desire for Pho had disappeared for quite a while. It was partly because I had to prepare for too many tests, wasted my time in all sort of paperwork, and other things, so I lost the taste for Pho. I forgot how Pho tasted like. I was surprised that Pho and Spring rolls are the two most famous Vietnamese foods in America. They are served for lunch and dinner. They are meant to be real meals that provide nutrition, and substance for daily activities, so there is gone my breakfast food. I do not have a pleasure of waking up early and go out to get a bowl of noodle, but I have to wait till lunch or dinner to get it. That is a cultural difference; I suppose. Everybody eat cereal and other fast foods for breakfast because nobody in America has time to spend an hour for breakfast like myself in a bucolic town in the north of Vietnam. Pho here tastes different too; it is not as hot as what I want it to be. But on the brighter side, there is more stuff in a bowl of Pho, and the bowl is substantially bigger. It is considered as an ethnic food, not a popular food. It is cooked with beef broth that cooks buy from grocery stores, not from scratch like home. My pho experience is totally different here in terms of tastes, restaurants, timing, people, and the purpose that I go to eat Pho is different too. Before eating Pho is a sort of a morning ritual, now it is a slow-food restaurant experience that serves as a reminder of a distant home. It reminds me of my family, my people, my country and my responsibility and that I am not allowed to be Westernized or Americanized, and that I am Vietnamese.
This blog post, however, is neither about the Pho experience nor my study-abroad experience, but it is about how my life is reflected through a bowl of Pho with its simplest and universal ingredients, not local ones. Pho is very similar to moral codes; there are local norms and universal moral codes. You can find some universal ingredients to personalize to make a basic bowl of Pho, or personalize by adding local specialties into it. But the basic ingredients are thin rice noodle, chicken or beef broth, meat slices, seasoning vegetables, bean sprout (which actually was added when Pho traveled from Hanoi to Saigon J), chili, sriracha and lime. You eat the noodles by using chopsticks and a spoon. The best bite is a combination of noodle, vegetables, a piece of meat, vegetables, and a spoonful of soup. The basic principle here is that you have a bit of everything at one. It sounds very simple, but it is the Vietnamese identity to me. Each ingredient represents a Vietnamese characteristic of the people and the land, which is embedded in a bowl of Pho.
The foremost important ingredient is the flat rice noodle. In America, it looks and tastes very similar to the noodle in Pad Thai, but they are totally different. In Vietnam, the noodle that is served in Pho is fresh, meaning that they are not dry noodles. They contain water, and you do not need to boil water to cook them. You only need to warm them up. It makes a huge difference to eat a bowl of Pho with fresh noodle because you can taste the freshness, and the richness in it. It represents for the earth, for beauty, generosity and ingenuity that Vietnamese people value the most. Yes, Vietnamese culture evolved around agriculture. Those characteristics are valued the most in an agricultural society where people rely heavily on other people’s labor, and Mother Nature’s mercy. The earth and its children (i.e. plants) are most important. That is the reason why one finds so many different seasonings and vegetables and rice noodle in a bowl of Pho. It is the earth itself represented in Pho.
Then the second most important ingredient for me is the broth, which represents water, purity, and harmony. The key word here is harmony. The broth makes everything feels right; it balances and combines all shades of tastes and feelings together. If the noodle and meat are too dry, you can add some more broth. If the meat is too chewy and you cannot swallow it, add a spoonful of broth. With the help of broth, meat and noodle will slowly but peacefully find their way down your stomach. The broth represents fluidity, resourcefulness and harmony. It sounds very Asian, very stereotypical, but they are necessary quality that one should strive for and master in order to remain balanced in life. If one grows up in a Vietnamese household, and goes to a Vietnamese school, one will be repeatedly told about the story of “Chung Cake and Day Cake,” or “The Tale of Earth and Water.” They are all about the creation of a tradition, or the creation of the Vietnamese people. They both emphasize the harmony between two elements: earth and water, or to a broader extent, nature. So a bowl of Pho that contains two most important elements of earth and water truly represents Vietnamese belief in the harmony of nature.
The last ingredient that adds flavor and highlights the distinctiveness of Pho is the meat. One can choose different types of meat to go with a bowl of Pho; it is up to one’ personal preference. It speaks more for a personal choice than to the identity of a people. I rank it the least important because it represents for the luxury and the substance that makes Pho become a luxury food, not a poor man’s food. Vietnamese people used to be poor (and are still poor according to the World Bank’s standard). Only twenty years ago, meat was considered as luxury food that people had to restrain their consumption to the minimum. There were many economic and cultural reasons behind this mentality. Economists would say that meat is a normal good; when people get richer they consume more meat. Hence, when Vietnamese were poor, they would consume less of it. The second reason is that there was a huge shortage of supply. This comes from the food ration policy of the communist government. Everybody now realizes this policy to be stupid; so were the policy makers, so was the government. Let’s leave politics aside, I want to emphasize that meat is still not a main ingredient in a bowl of Pho. It makes Pho complete, but it does not represent for the principles, philosophy and the people behind Pho.
I have discussed a little bit about my basic understanding of Pho today including its ingredients and some of the characteristics of Vietnamese people that it represents. Next time, I will discuss how Pho philosophy unfolds in my daily life, and I hope that some of you guys (i.e. bloggers) will find it enjoyable and maybe applicable in your life as well.