The New York Philharmonic orchestra opened its historic first concert in Hanoi this past October with a lilting rendition of the Vietnamese national anthem, Quoc ca Viet Nam (“Armies of Vietnam, Forward”), followed by the more spirited strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Standing at attention for both in an atmosphere that can only be described as electric, the audience of fashionably dressed Vietnamese and a few Americans could hardly fail to sense both irony and respect as the once-bitter adversaries came together in the grandiose Hanoi Opera House built by the French in 1911.
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Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s new music director, was later asked what he had been thinking as he was conducting. “Well, of course, getting it right for a pretty big moment,” he said. “But also, I have to admit, there were a few mental flashes of pho.”
For three days, Gilbert and I, separately and together, had scoured dozens of stalls lining both the broad avenues and the tight back alleys of Hanoi, seeking out versions of the lusty beef noodle soup that is Vietnam’s national dish. We were joined intermittently by various orchestra members, including Gilbert’s Japanese-born mother, Yoko Takebe, who has been a violinist with the Philharmonic for many years (as was his father, Michael Gilbert, until he retired in 2001). Between dodging motorbikes and cars that streamed unimpeded by stoplights—an amenity missing from the burgeoning capital—we slurped bowl after bowl of Vietnam’s answer to Japan’s ramen and China’s lo mein.
In his travels, the 43-year-old maestro has become quite a food buff. When I learned that he planned to spend time between rehearsals and master classes seeking authentic pho on its native turf, I asked to tag along. Both of us were aware of the culinary rage pho has lately become in the United States, as Vietnamese restaurants flourish across the country—especially in Texas, Louisiana, California, New York and in and around Washington, D.C. The noodle-filled comfort food seems well suited to the current economy. (In the United States, you can get a bowl of pho for $4 to $9.) As a food writer, I’ve had an enduring obsession with food searches. They have taken me to obscure outposts, led to lasting friendships around the world and immersed me in local history and social customs.
And so it proved with pho, as Gilbert and I went about this throbbing, entrepreneurial city, admiring restored early-20th-century architectural landmarks built during the French protectorate, when the country was called Tonkin and the region was known as Indochina. Gilbert willingly agreed to an ambitious itinerary, which we punctuated with dueling wordplay—“Phobia,” “It’s what’s pho dinner,” “pho pas”— as we sought out the most authentic, beef-based pho bo or the lighter, chicken-based pho ga. Alas, our puns were based on the incorrect American pronunciation, “foe.” In Vietnamese, it is somewhere between “fuh” and “few,” almost like the French feu, for fire, as in pot-au-feu, and thereby hangs a savory shred of history.
We chopsticked our way through slim and slippery white rice noodles, green and leafy tangles of Asian basil, sawtooth coriander, peppermint, chives and fern-like cresses. For pho bo, we submerged slivers of rosy raw beef in the scalding soup to cook just milliseconds before we consumed them. Pho ga, we discovered, is traditionally enriched with a raw egg yolk that ribbons out as it coddles in the hot soup. Both chicken and beef varieties were variously aromatic, with crisp, dry-roasted shallots and ginger, exotically subtle cinnamon and star anise, stingingly hot chilies, astringent lime or lemon juice and nuoc mam, the dark, fermented salty fish sauce that tastes, fortunately, better than it smells. It is that contrast of seasonings—sweet and spicy, salty, sour and bitter, hot and cool—that makes this simple soup so intriguing to the palate.
Gilbert gamely confronted bare, open-front pho stalls that had all the charm of abandoned carwashes and lowered his broad, 6-foot-1 frame onto tiny plastic stools that looked like overturned mop buckets. Nor was he fazed by the suspiciously unhygienic makeshift “kitchens” presided over by chatty, welcoming women who stooped over charcoal or propane burners as they reached into pots and sieves and balanced ladles of ingredients before portioning them into bowls.
In planning this adventure, I had found my way to the Web site of Didier Corlou (www.didiercorlou.com). A chef from Brittany who trained in France, he has cooked in many parts of the world and, having lived in Hanoi for the past 19 years, has become a historian of Vietnamese cuisine and its long-neglected native spices and herbs. Corlou and his wife, Mai, who is Vietnamese, run La Verticale, a casually stylish restaurant where he applies French finesse to traditional Vietnamese dishes and ingredients. I spent my first morning in Hanoi learning the ins and outs of pho while sipping Vietnamese coffee—a seductively sweet iced drink based on strong locally grown, French-brewed coffee beans and, improbably, syrupy canned condensed milk—in Corlou’s fragrant, shelf-lined shop, where he sells customized spice blends. The shop provides entry to the restaurant.
Chef Corlou regards Vietnamese cuisine as one of the most original and interesting he has experienced; he values its ingenuity with humble products, its emphasis on freshness, the counterplay of flavors and the harmonious fusion of foreign influences, most notably from China and France. The pho we know today, he told me, began as a soup in and around Hanoi just a little over 100 years ago. “It is the single most important dish,” he said, “because it is the basic meal of the people.”
Pho bo is an unintended legacy of the French, who occupied Vietnam from 1858 to 1954 and who indeed cooked pot-au-feu, a soup-based combination of vegetables and beef, a meat barely known in Vietnam in those days and, to this day, neither as abundant nor as good as the native pork. (Corlou imports his beef from Australia.) But just as North American slaves took the leavings of kitchens to create what we now celebrate as soul food, so the Vietnamese salvaged leftovers from French kitchens and discovered that slow cooking was the best way to extract the most flavor and nourishment from them. They adopted the French word feu, just as they took the name of the French sandwich loaf, pain de mie, for banh mi, a baguette they fill with various greens, spices, herbs, sauces, pork and meatballs. Vietnam is perhaps the only country in the Far East to bake Western-style bread.