How the Vietnamese Diaspora Keeps the Phở Spirit Alive

For more than 20 years, Tuấn Võ arrives at his restaurant at 8 a.m. and gets everything ready before the first guest comes at around 11 a.m. When service ends and all the staff have gone, he stays behind and continues preparing for the next day. His phở broth takes six hours to come together. That does not include the time needed to soak and wash the bones in vinegar to remove the scums for a clear broth. Once it’s on a simmer, he skims the stock, adjusts the heat and seasons multiple times. Finally, when all of that is done, he heads home at 2 a.m. and catches some sleep. Four hours later, another day begins.

In 1988, Võ landed in Canada after spending three years at a refugee camp in Malaysia. Together with his wife and a cousin, he opened Phở Tiến Thành’s doors in 1995. Since then, the joint has become a Vietnamese institution on Ossington Avenue. It was featured on local newspapers, travel guides and once touted a Sursur Lee’s favourite.

A sign above a store in a brick building

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Photo Samuel C via Yelp

While the area has changed a lot over the years, with hip bars and restaurants popping up, customers return for the hearty broth, a culmination of beef bones and meat in a complex spice blend. Võ honours the traditional recipe passed down by his phở master, paying attention to every minute detail: the serving bowl must be hot and the stock must never be overcooked, even by one minute.

But the key ingredient of all? “Always cook with your heart and your soul,” Võ said proudly.

Phở’s meteoric rise

Võ is among those that settled in Canada in the later wave of the Vietnamese immigration into the country.

Heeding the advice from a UN humanitarian, he learned everything he could about the restaurant business during his time at the refugee camp. Before settling in Toronto, Võ lived in Edmonton, where he apprenticed in a few Chinese restaurants, leveraging the skills he picked up in the camp and his experience catering for weddings in Vietnam. In 1995, Phở Tiến Thành was born, out of his wife’s love for the noodle soup.

A bowl of food on a plate

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Photo Allie B via Yelp

At that time, Torontonians were no stranger to phở. In 1987, there was even “a glossary for those who don’t know ‘Bò’ from ‘Phở’” (even though the spelling of “bánh phở” was wrong) in a Toronto Star story.

According to Dr. Erica J Peters, director of the Culinary Historians of Northern California and author of Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century, the Vietnamese exodus to North America in the 70’s gave rise to phở’s popularity in the West. Peters also noted that nostalgia for a colonial era sparked interest in an “exotic Indochina” and inspired high-end restauranteurs in New York to include flavours from Vietnamese specialties, including phở, on their menu.

Phở as a naming practice

Given its catapult to an international audience, “phở” has been a moniker to signify the Vietnamese-ness of a restaurant. Many immigrant entrepreneurs adopted the naming formula: “phở”, followed by a number, their name or a significant someone’s, even though the dish accounts for only a fraction of the multi-paged menu. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, phở shops only sell phở.

A car parked on a city street

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A Vietnamese restaurant in Paris. Photo by Rungbachduong via Wikimedia

Andrea Nguyễn, a cookbook author and food writer based in Northern California, thinks the naming practice is for marketing purposes. Restaurants abroad want to attract customers with Vietnam’s most iconic dish and appeal to a lot of people, which explains the extensive menu that includes bún and rice plates. Nguyễn is the author of six cookbooks, one of which is named The Pho Cookbook.

Indeed, it is a widespread trend for restaurants offering a cuisine outside of the dominant culture of a particular area to advertise themselves through their cuisine’s most well-known dish, according to Dr. Laura Carlson, a historian based in New York and Toronto, host and executive producer of The Feast Podcast.

Carlson added: “This has been a tactic long used in Mexican taco shops or Jamaican patty places. Often restaurateurs will include the most famous or most familiar item on their menu in the restaurant’s name to make sure that people know this iconic dish is served there. There are many cases of a national cuisine becoming popular for one breakout dish. That dish then becomes an entry point for people to learn more about the many other elements of the cuisine.”

Phở as a national identity

In Vietnam, many food joints are simply places that provide sustenance. For today’s breakfast, we come to a phở shop to eat phở, just like how we switch to a cơm tấm (broken rice) place for a change the next day. In Vietnam, Vietnamese food is just…food.

However, a Vietnamese restaurant overseas is a symbol of a culture and traditions, and phở becomes the embodiment of a Vietnamese national identity, as argued by Tu Tran, a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Modern Languages and Culture Studies at the University of Alberta. The prominence of “phở” in restaurants’ names, coupled with other linguistic and visual cues, evokes a sense of homeland among Vietnamese immigrants, while also introducing the country’s cuisine as a cultural product to non-Vietnamese.

Vietnamese food beyond phở

Dzô Viet Eatery is the newest comer to the Vietnamese food scene in Toronto. In its menu, you can’t find phở. Instead, there’s “photien dac biet”, a riff on Canada’s beloved poutine, where fries are served with sliced beef, phở gravy, basil and crispy shallots. You’ll also see a mix of modern creations, such as Viet tacos and lantern dragon (a cocktail that heroes dragonfruits), as well as traditional regional dishes (grilled skewers and Hanoi lemongrass beef).

“Photien dac biet”, a riff on Canada’s beloved poutine, where fries are served with sliced beef, phở gravy, basil and crispy shallots. Photo Dzô Viet Eatery

The restaurant is the brainchild of David Tống and Jackson Mou, who want to bring to Toronto the “nhậu” culture, which involves drinking and having fun with friends while enjoying delicious street food. “Một-Hai-Ba-Dzô!” is the equivalent of “Cheers!”, the sound of joy and camaraderie one often catches on a busy Vietnamese street.

Lantern dragon cocktail. Photo Dzô Viet Eatery

“A lot of Vietnamese restaurants in Toronto serve phở and we want to break away from that because there’s so much more to Vietnamese cuisine,” said Mou, who manages Dzô Viet’s marketing and sales.

Meanwhile, his partner Tống is in charge of recipes and menu development, taking inspiration from his late mother, dearly known as Mama 9. She owned a few restaurants in Toronto before passing away, leaving him with a recipe book that he continues to treasure. Tống and Mou put their twist on the dishes and modernized their plating and presentation but kept the core flavours intact, paying homage to Mama 9 and Vietnam’s diverse regional cuisines.

Without the past, there will be no future

Gone were the days when Vietnamese cuisine was considered exotic and phở needed to be italicized. Cooks like Võ and Mama 9 endured hardship and honoured traditions to share a piece of Vietnam to a country halfway across the world. They have educated a generation of cultured individuals with a global palate that can tell a good phở when they taste one. They have also paved the way for Tống, Mou and other aspiring trailblazers to freely express themselves on their quest to expand Vietnamese cuisine’s global reach.

Within Vietnam, the food scene is constantly changing to reflect the people’s openness to new ideas and adventures. So why shouldn’t the diaspora’s culinary landscape evolve too? Whether as a hearty noodle soup or gravy on fries, phở is always welcome.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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