“Why does your Phở tastes different than mine?”- a conundrum that both northern and southern Vietnamese have been trying to solve for generations. Is there any legitimacy in believing that each region of Vietnam has a unique palate of taste? Which city can claim to have “the best”, “the most authentic”, or “have invented” a Viet’s cuisine? By taking the most iconic Vietnamese food – Phở, then closely examine the unique taste, preparation, and presentation from each region, we’ll see how diverse and distinctive Vietnamese culinary truly is.
Hanoi is an intersection for Chinese, French, and Indochina cuisine, but the city still has a deep connection to its’ Vietnamese traditions. Phở might not have originated from Hanoi, but its popularity is derived from famous Phở restaurants, whose recipes are well-kept family secrets. Phở Hanoi is easy to make, its ingredients are bountiful: phở noodles, chicken stock, fresh spring onions, and white chicken meat. Phở Hanoi is often accompanied by sliced lime, white vinegar, and mild hot sauce – it’s condiments highlight Phở’s already soulful ingredients. But each bowl of Phở somehow tastes uniquely different, every small step in making Phở requires precision and creativity. Questions like: How long to boil the broth, what kind of phở noodles to use, what season of spring onions is being used…? Still, Phở Hanoi always revolves around these ingredients, with these cooking methods, bringing a taste that is both refreshing and delicious.
Moving along to Central Vietnam, where the hills are always green, and also the dishes. Phở Hue might not be as glamorous as Hanoi’s, but it proves itself as a wholly unique experience. Hue, with it’s bountiful green hills and tea farms, cooks its Phở with beef instead of chicken. Every part of the buffalo is used in making Phở, creating a wide variety of options through combining types of meat: tenderloin, rib, sirloin…. In contrast with Northern Vietnam’s dedication to simplicity, mostly because of its’ limited access to ingredients compared to the lush environment of Central Vietnam, Hue’s cuisine is always colorful, exotic, and varied. It’s almost impossible to name all of Hue’s famous cuisine, because each dish is small and the people here eat several dishes per meal. Phở Hue is always served alongside several different vegetables, and 2 different cups of sauce – fish sauce and shrimp sauce. Diversity of flavors is key, and Central Vietnam is not lacking. It’s almost like Central culinary is making a bold statement, proudly asserting itself within the Vietnamese culinary scene.
Saigon, Vietnam’s most economically developed city, is the cultural center of Vietnamese cuisine. A crossroad for international travel and heavily influenced by French and American colonialism, Saigon has not lost its’ Vietnamese culinary essence, but somehow manages to improves it. In Saigon, Phở was in brought by Northern Vietnamese, and underwent years of culinary experimentation from colonialism. Phở Saigon might not be considered a regional icon, but Phở Saigon still represents the best aspect of Southern cuisine – creativity. There’s no correct way of making Phở Saigon. Like a portable all-you-can-eat buffet, Phở Saigon relies on its consumer to mix the ingredients to their own tasting. Always a handful of freshly boiled bean sprout and green leaves nearby, Phở Saigon delivers a wholly distinctive taste on each bite. Saigonese are also know for their affinity for spicy foods. Perhaps it’s because of the tropical weather, ideal for chili peppers, but in every Phở vendor you’ll find a bottle of bright red hot sauce, hot enough to make you sweat just by looking at it. Phở Saigon is an explosion of flavors, a rollercoaster ride of tastes. Contrast with the benign nature of Phở Hanoi, Southern Phở screams personality, a wild beast of Vietnamese cuisine.