Friday, April 5, 2013

Real Food, Real Phở

Organic, grass-fed beef from local Pampero Ranch
Links to recipes at the bottom. 
N.B. As a former career academic, I reserve the right to edit and editorialize in perpetuity; I  updated the history of Nam Định as of 10/15/2013.

As I stated previously, I started this blog to share my love of Việt food and my nutritional lifestyle that promotes healthy, sustainable choices.  I am not a food professional.  I am a home cook--albeit anthropologically trained in the culture of Việt Nam at the doctoral level and partially raised by my ông bà ngoại|maternal grandparents which informs my approach to the social history of foodways.  Below follows two recipes for phở bò|beef noodle soup & phở gà|chicken noodle soup.  But first a little historical reckoning about the social foodways of Phở.

The Genealogy of Phở

The French try to claim inspiration rights for phở with this spurious pot-au-feu nonsense perpetrated by an important somebody like francophile Craig Claiborne with a vast knowledge of (European) food yet with limited knowledge of the five thousand of years of Việt culture much less the last 500.   And this supposition is eagerly repeated until it is accepted as mythologized gospel by more urbanized Việt|Việt Americans pioneer chefs seeking to validate or elevate Việt cuisine/culture.  This mythos lacks an understanding of peasant political economy, modes of production, and foodways, and dare I say, Việt history.  Viet history did not begin with Western missionaries in the 16th century, French invasion in the 1880s, American occupation in 1954; while Viet culture and civilization goes back thousands of years, there is documented history dating back to 111 BC with the first Han conquest.

Though Việt Nam has a long history of influence from South Asia, con trâu|water buffalo is not a Sacred Cow; except for the ethnic Chàm Hindus, cows were not venerated as divine avatars of Vishnu.  The simple truth is, Việt folks have never had the luxury of retiring ông trâu|elderly water buffalo "out to pasture."  Those senior or surplus buffaloes go in the pot and every inch of them is used.  Livestock reproduction is not managed as it is here in the agriculture industry (that Mike Rowe is a crack up).  Con trâu be gettin' it on when and where they damn well like.  The offspring of such merry unions are put to work, sold, or eaten.  Phở, and by extension beef, was not available everyday as they are now in the US and in the cities in Việt Nam.  Phở wasn't written about prior to French colonization, because let's face it, phở was not a meal of the emperor (really a king trying to elevate to the Middle Kingdom's bar, but let's not argue semantics) nor of the citified literati; it was and is a simple peasant dish that no one composed lục bát poems about.  Not even Hồ Xuân Hương bothered to make it sexy.   

Phở is a Viet dish.  Phở was a dish comprised of necessity as a by-product of a special occasion, a celebration, a wedding (ông ngoại revitalized this tradition in the US when he slaughtered a cow in this manner a few decades back for his nephew's wedding in San Diego--and his former parish comprised of Northerners from the same province now does this regularly as a fundraiser), a funeral, the birth of a son.  When my ông ngoại|maternal grandfather returned to his natal hamlet in rural North Việt Nam (in Nam Định province, purported to be the birthplace of pho, and one of the original 8 provinces that are the cradle of Việt civilization) in the late 1990s for the first time since becoming a refugee in 1954, they honored him in age-old tradition--by slaughtering a surplus water buffalo on his behalf, collecting its blood for tiết canh|blood pudding, and ceremonially smeared the whole intact carcass with blood before lighting a bonfire to burn off its hair. (I am digging up the pictures but alas, they seem to have been lost after his death.)  Then about an inch or so of skin and meat was skinned and served as thịt tái|seared carpaccio with thinh|roasted rice power and tương cụ đà|fermented soy dipping sauce.  The rest of the meat and organs were made into various dishes and the bones were not given to the dogs, they were made into phở.  The hooves were made into goblets and the horns into a trophy for the walls and a story for the grandchildren (I wonder what happened to the horns now that ông ngoại has passed?).  The village was fed for a week.  This isn't French.  This is common sense, peasant senseViệt sense.

Anyone who argues that Phở was invented by the French would also need to make the case that thịt tái is a French invention as well though it shares no French cognate and with no parallel except with Italian carpaccio; or for that matter, bò lúc lắc and its genealogical predecessor the Khmer Lok Lak|ឡុកឡាក់.  And they also have a lot of 'splainin' to do do about the husbandry of trâu and the political economy of surplus capital (trâu); mayhaps, elderly trâu transcend to heaven like a bodhisattva once they've served their life's purpose.

Lễ Đâm Trâu--there be some Phở for breakfast. Blessed be.

All we need to do is look at the elaborate rituals around slaughtering water buffalo--Lễ Đâm Trâu--among ethnic minorities in Việt Nam that have the least amount of francophilia.  Some of the ethnic minorities in VN are also con rồng cháu tiên--descendants of Âu Cơ and Lạc Long Quân pushed out to the highlands by the agrarian Kinh--with shared cultural traditions.  Once eschewed by the communist state as barbaric, and likely surpressed, currently there is a state-sponsored revival of the Lễ Đâm Trâu for cultural tourism; these festivities which honor the sacred buffalo and give thanks for the harvest season.

Here's the Lễ Đâm Trâu of the Ba-Na tribe of Gia Lai
 (coincidentally the village my paternal family lived in when they were being "re-educated").  
Trâu introduced at 4:40.

To claim a French origin for Phở is the height of colonial arrogance and yes, VN the nation-state did internally colonize over 50 tribes of ethnic minorities so Viet colonial arrogance with regards to the tribal minorities is par for course (not to mention Viet Nam's own colonization of the Cham & Khmer kingdoms in the 16th century and the rich cultural legacy that created in the South.)

10/15/2013] Taking a closer look at the history of Nam Định province, purported to be the birthplace of phở, it is important to note the significant Spanish influence in the region, not French. What?! There is historical evidence dating to at least 1533 in Nam Định to that effect, but Spanish Dominicans from the Philippines began their Vatican-sanctioned missionary work in earnest in eastern Tonkin in 1676--their Apostolic Vicariate region comprised all the provinces east of the Red River and the sông Lô|Clear River including Nam Định (which falls under the Bui Chu Diocese established in 1679).  My grandparents' village church was established in 1719. ( I certainly did learn a lot about Catholicism in VN through research for this post.)

By contrast, French engagement in Nam Định (1883) was marked by colonial invasion and violent bloodshed as Viet folk mounted rebellions. Then French interests turned to exploiting cheap labor source for textile production and they established Nam Định as the center of their colonial textile industry. It's not surprising that my ông ngoại, my mother, one of my aunties & one uncle are capable tailors as a result of this legacy.

Arguments for a French infused genealogy for Phở has a romanticized view of the social nature of colonization (á la Indochine) that needs correcting.  Napolean Bonaparte did not decide to invade Viet Nam because he wanted to share classic French cooking techniques. French colonial administrators and their soldiers were not congenial Jacques Pepins-type paisans traipsing about the Viet countryside giving fracking cooking lessons to peasant womenfolk. If anything, the womenfolk hid when the French were nearby because rape is a weapon of domination. The French were in VN/Indochina to enforce an imperialist military occupation, maximize resource extraction and exploit labor/sexual subjugation.  French plantation owners intentionally/deliberately borrowed tactics from American slave-owners; rubber was harvested on the blood, sweat, tears, and corpses of Viet bodies.  To imagine that French colonizers were conveying tips on onion carmelization while conscripting forced labor, imposing harsh taxes and alcohol gavage quotas, raping congaïe|con gái (a Viet word that means daughter or girl child corrupted by/in French to connote a concubine), to imagine that as a benevolent transaction akin to the bantering between Julia Childs and Jacques Pepin is the height of ahistorical imperialist amnesia. The generation (and really, the rural populace who bore the brunt of the exploitation) that experienced and remember French rule is now passing, but my ông ngoại's stories of French brutality will not be forgotten.

Coming to America

Here in the US, Viet cuisine has also infused itself with the Standard American Diet--high meat content, highly industrialized food processing, additives/preservatives (oh the ubiquitous MSG in all its iterations), refined sugars, etc.  Nước mắm |fish sauce has gotten a bad reputation amongst medical doctors who without any scientific evidence at all claim that it causes heart disease and strokes in the Viet American population. (I'd still like to see the research looking at the entire subcontinent of Southeast Asia consisting of millions of people and the correlation between fish sauce and heart disease/mortality to back that claim. Hey, I'd still like to see evidence-based medicine but that is another kind of blog entirely.) This ignores of course all the additives, preservatives and industrial chemical processing that goes into producing most fish sauce. (I've done posts about fish sauce and a taste test.)

Yo! Get to the phở-king point!

I grew up eating my bà ngoại|maternal grandmother's Northern-style phở for brunch almost every Sunday.  She would wake up as is customary, before the crack of dawn, and begin to simmer those bones for at least 5 hours.

Phở is a delicate balance of aromatic spices simmered in beef broth, graced with the pungent flavor of fresh basil and cilantro.  And in my opinion, phở is completely ruined by hoison and sriracha sauce and I have maintained this attitude since childhood even though this is how the rest of phamily eats it. I had my first restaurant-made (Southern-style) phở when I was in my early 20s and was appalled. Phở became fast food. Sweetened with MSG, overly sharp with fish sauce, and served with the ubiquitous hoison and sriracha.  In my hoity-toity opinion, hoison and sriracha mask the flavor of inferior broth--bones not simmered long enough to extract the minerals and beef essence.  I'm not sure I even finished that first restaurant bowl.

In American phở restaurants, it has become the norm to be served a supersized portion and to abandon the dredges of watered down soupy MSG, muddied by hoison/sriracha, wilted herbs, and thickened by noodle detritus. In our Phamily, the custom was to serve a Viet-sized portion, and drink it to the last drop. ông ngoại was fond of telling me stories how they survived the brutalities of French colonization and the atrocities of Japanese occupation and the indignities of American intervention. ông ngoại would give me the body counts of how many millions died under each regime. So I always licked my bowl clean.

Over the years, I've had to take my soul food familiars and bring them back to the basics.  In a way, I've decolonized my diet--I've eliminated the wheat and dairy of French influence, and the industrially processed, chemically laden ingredients and products of Japanese & American influence.  I use organic, grass-fed beef bones, organic spices (when I can source them), dried rice noodles (I've yet to source or make brown rice noodles), herbs from my garden, mineral-rcih grey sea salt, and real fish sauce.  The result is deeply satisfying, nutrient-dense, nourishing.  It is not the sweet phở that most phở fans accustomed to the fare served up in phở restaurants across the US will be used to. It is not my bà ngoại's phở because there is no spice like nostalgia, and alas she took her recipe when she crossed over (and to be real, she loved her some MSG).  This is my Phở. Phở real.

One day, my grandchildren will tell stories about my phở in fond memory and will eschew the dishwater that passes for phở in most restaurants (two notable exceptions to my hatred of phở restaurants).

[Note: Everyone's spice mix/taste is different.  Mine is only an approximation of what magic was in bà ngoại's phở.  I have only tasted phở like bà ngoại's twice since my youth; once at a hole-in-the-wall shop in Qui Nhơn (the city my ông bà ngoại settled in after 1954) and while volunteering post-Katrina at the communal kitchen of Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church in Versailles, New Orleans--a community settled by Viet refugees from two villages in Nam Định province.]

Without further ado...

Real Phở Bo recipe

Real Phở Ga recipe


Ăn Ngon Lành|Eat Delectably! 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for laying out some real historical facts about the Feu vs Pho legend.


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