Savoury breakfasts and the iconic bowl of Phở

(VOVWORLD) -In the Western world, breakfasts are heavily characterized by sugar. Whether it’s pancakes, waffles, maple syrup, or one of the plethora of sugary cereals that populate the average household, it is clear that breakfast in the west is frequently one for the sweet-toothed. The direct antithesis of this? Vietnam’s most famous dish, the immensely savouryPhở, that millions consume every day. So why exactly do the Vietnamese forego sugar for salt so early in the morning? And what exactly does Phở represent for the nation?
Savoury breakfasts and the iconic bowl of Phở - ảnh 1

To find out more, we spoke with renowned chef and food expert Pham Anh Tuyet about Vietnamese food, the importance of tradition and authenticity, and the phenomenon that is Phở. Mrs. Tuyet is an award-winning chef, having received accolades such as the Vietnamese Emeritus Artist award. Yet she stays remarkably grounded, responding to my question of, “which award are you most proud of” with the response, “I am more proud of my contribution to helping keep the soul of authentic Hanoian food alive”. She has also cooked for many famous people throughout her career, from celebrities and other world-renown chefs like the late Anthony Bourdain, to high profile global public figures such as the US and Italian ambassadors to Vietnam. Through her cooking she strives to maintain the integrity and soul of traditional cuisine, serving up perfectly executed dishes that have withstood the test of time, retaining the pure essence of centuries of Vietnamese culinary tradition. 

Savoury breakfasts and the iconic bowl of Phở - ảnh 2Chef Pham Anh Tuyet

Here is what we learned:

Oliver (O): Why do you think Phở is so popular in Vietnam?

Tuyet (T): Phở has been around for an incredible long time, maybe over 100 years. It is also for everyone; nobody does not enjoy it. However, our food is not limited to just Phở. It is true that it is so significant to Vietnamese people, but apart from Phở we also have many other famous dishes, like Bún Chả and Spring rolls. Phở is already well known so I am trying to promote other ones to the world as well. 

O: How has Pho changed over recent decades?

T: To make and prepare a bowl of Phở takes a lot of effort and time, but now, in modern times, the taste of Phở has changed a lot, to suit the customers’ demand. So, now few people can make authentic Phở in Vietnam. The taste has unfortunately changed a little.

O: What nutritional benefits does Phở have?

T: It is a perfect source of nutrition: you gain it from the beef, the broth, which is made from pork bones, and the noodles which come from rice, which are all very good for you. Phở is also served with a lot of fresh herbs, as well as spices such as cinnamon and star anise, all of which are so nutritious. It gives you enough energy and nutrients to get through the morning but is not too heavy so as to make you feel full and heavy.

O: You cook to a very high standard, and some might think you might not eat something as ubiquitous and common as Phở. Is this true?

T: To me, I do not have any concept of ‘high’ or ‘low’ cooking. For me, this cuisine is something that reminds me of tradition and my childhood. Many dishes are so simple, like a bowl of vegetables or a bowl of soup with crab. But it is closely tied to tradition and family, and I keep this cooking in my soul and I am not concerned with whether, to make it, it requires a high or low skill level. 

O: Do you cook Phở when you are at home?

T: Yes of course I make it nearly every day. I prepare it for my family for breakfast. I cherish the tradition of it. Nowadays so many people are too busy to eat Phở at home so they eat out at a restaurant. But I try to have all the members of my family eating my Phở every morning, no matter how busy I am. 

O: Historically, I believe, Phở was a food everyone ate in the morning. Do you think it still is such a popular breakfast food or has it eclipsed this?

T: There are really two ideas in answering this question. The first is that Phở will never lose its place because it is a traditional food of Vietnam, it is now more and more developed even in other countries. And many young people from other countries come to Vietnam to learn how to cook Phở. I have taught people from China, from the Philippines, Singapore. The popularity of Phở is not decreasing. The second idea is that you can find Phở all morning at thousands of places. From street corners to restaurants to street stalls in small alleys. People still go everywhere to search for a good bowl of Pho, no matter if they must queue. Its popularity is still immense as a breakfast staple, but it is true that more and more people are starting to have it for lunch, dinner, and so on.  

O: In western countries, breakfast is inherently linked to sugar, pancakes, waffles, sugary cereal etc. Why do you think the Vietnamese prefer something as savoury as Phở, which is full of fishsauce, umami, spice, & sourness?

T: I am not so sure. Many foreigners have visited my restaurant and they often claim that Vietnamese dishes are so balanced: not too salty, not too sweet, not too spicy. I have experimented with other cuisines from China, Thailand, and South Korea, and a lot of the time it is too spicy, too salty, too fatty. This is not good for your stomach when you are starting your day. Nor is the western tradition like you say of having too much sugar. It is not good to have that much sugar in the morning. You get too tired too quickly. Another reason is that we used to not consume sugar so much. Now, we are definitely consuming more sugar, but years ago it was not really around. I think that is in part why Vietnamese breakfasts are not very sweet. I always give advice to everyone in my cooking classes of how to have a balanced meal, and I think Phở is a perfect representation of this.

O: How does Phở differ nationally? Do southerners prefer different toppings to Hanoians, for example? Or is it relatively uniform across the country?

T: The basics of it is very similar nationwide. In fact, however, there are many differences. If you think of the authentic cuisine Hanoians enjoy, the people enjoy a light flavour, not mixed with other kinds of ingredients and tastes. But for southerners, they prefer sweeter food, and so they put a lot more sugar in their food than Hanoians. Sometimes people use additives or stocks, but I only use bone broth. That way my Phở stays true to the original authentic flavour. 

O: Apart from a great tasting hearty soup, what does Phở represent for the nation, culturally?

T: The trademark of Phở is like the trademark of Vietnam. For example Korea has Kimchi, China has roasted Peking duck, we have Phở. It is inherently linked to our country, and our country has a very important food culture. That is why Phở is such an important expression of our culture. 

We can learn a huge amount from Mrs. Tuyet. She is an inspirational figure for food, its culture, and Vietnamese history. As we grow older, and as the world rapidly becomes more and more advanced, we are so lucky to have people like Tuyet who try to maintain and promote a history and culture that is in danger of being lost to the tide of time. Anthony Bourdain described Tuyet as almost like a ‘document,’ within which contains the original taste of Vietnam.