Pho subtleties: northern vs southern
A post on the SF board asks the following question that I'm taking to the General Board:
Could you enlighten us enthusiastic pho newbies as to the diffs between northern and southern style pho? Is it the broth? The type of noodles? The meat garnishes offered? The veg plate garnishes offered? Chowish minds want to know.
I don't purport to be any expert on pho. My parents are from the north so I grew up eating nothern style pho, or pho bac. Lately I've been in a pho phase and have tried 4 different pho houses over the past couple weeks, so I've been thinking a lot about how pho differs from place to place.
To me, I think pho bac is more about how well a simple beef broth can taste supremely delicious, and southern style pho or pho nam is more about what you add to the pho to make it a complex whirl of tastes and fragrances.
So a good pho bac is so good you don't want to add any of the garnishes to it except a couple drops of lime and a tiny splash of nuoc mam (fish sauce), at the table of course. But a good pho nam is the interplay of the broth with the perfume of the herbs and the texture of the sprouts and onions.
I've got other thoughts but I wanted to know what others have to say about this. I also found a very interesting and well-written ode to pho posted in 2004 (link below).
When I think of northern style pho, I think of the pho I ate at home....wider more slippery dispersed noodles, very intense flavors...strong beefy flavor, strong on the star anise, strong on the fish sauce and a simple healthy amount of green onion and cilantro as garnish. Finish off with ground black pepper. That's it. Aggressive and straightforward. No Siracha sauce, no Hoisin. It was a crime to put those things in the pho, as those things were usually reserved for southern style pho. Speaking of which.
The pho which we see in restaurants...light on the fish sauce, light clear broth, thin more buoyant noodles, and a wide array of garnishes. It's "fancier" and more refined than Northern style. The flavors, as opposed to northern style, dances like ballerina on your palate and balances itself in a way that is almost...."pretty".
I honestly can't tell you which one I prefer though. It depends on your mood
Discussions again about Northern / Southern pho on the SF board, brought up this great article in the SF Chronicle. Though it is about a SF Pho crawl, it has lots of good info about the differences between Northern & Southern style as well as what makes good and bad pho.
I've wondered about this myself. Here in the southeast US, where there is a large Vietnamese population (especially in Charlotte), I've been trying various pho places for 10 years now. As I've sampled wide ranging variations, I've wondered if the differences are north vs. south or something else. My favorite versions of pho are very balanced: sweet, salty, sour (once you add a little lime), and spicy all at the same time, with no one aspect dominating. Other versions I've sampled (and not liked as well) have been predominately salty, with no sweetness at all. Strangely, I've sometimes been served lemon with these salty versions instead of lime. On one such occasion, when I requested lime instead, I was brought out a plate full of ... more lemon wedges! From some reading I've done, I've suspected that these versions might be northern-style, since the importance of garnishes apparently arose in the south. I admit this assumption may be totally off-base, however. I would also be interested in further comments.
I generally agree w/ your statements, Alice. I think I grew up w/ more of a northern version since my mom grew up in Hanoi, although she spent her adult years in the south (where my dad is from). We don't use many garnishes, and I don't add much Sriracha, if at all. My father, OTOH, has always doused his pho in hot sauce and loaded it w/ toppings. It's hard to parse out personal preference and regional influence though.
Based on my visit to Vietnam several years back, I noticed that more of the astringent leafy herbs accompanied pho in the south whereas northern pho was all about the broth, baby. I found the pho in the south to be more concentrated in flavor, heavier on the palate, and maybe even a little more oily. I will never forget slurping pho ga on a cool night in Dalat, as well as the duck and beef pho we had in Hanoi. Mine will never, ever taste that good at home...