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When My Mother's Cooking Becomes a Global Ph(o)nomenon

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Pho, that ingenious Vietnamese concoction, is an incomparable and sacred broth. Spiced with roasted star anise, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, charred ginger and onion, and made savory by fish sauce, the soup is brewed at a low heat until the beef falls off the bone and the marrow seeps. It inspires passion, and it is as endemic to Vietnamese culture as the Vietnamese language itself.

But since the Vietnam War ended, the soup, too, has become like the Vietnamese diaspora -- a global, well, phonomenon.

So much so that among my own clan, whenever we gather from all over the U.S., Canada, France and England -- to celebrate a wedding, say, or mourn the passing of a relative -- "pho-talk" often tops the list of our conversational topics. "I was in Athens last year and guess what?" Someone will start, and someone else will rise to the challenge. And so begin the rowdy banter and tall tales.

It is a kind of game of one-upmanship, both to show off our new cosmopolitan sheen and to marvel at how far we've come since our initial expulsion from our beloved homeland as refugees. For within the culinary experience is the theme of our journey itself. Cousin B., the rowdy kid back home, has become a manager for a big high-tech company and travels widely. He has eaten pho in Rio de Janeiro. Uncle P., who lives in France, has eaten pho in Tanzania and in Rio de Janeiro.

Friends and relatives have eaten pho in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jakarta, Mexico City, Paris, London, Melbourne, Seoul, Bangkok and yes, even far-flung Dubai and Johannesburg. We gossip. We tell pho stories, often while savoring the soup. It's as if knowing another far-flung city that serves what was once our national treasure eases our nostalgia and appeals to our hope for prosperity: wherever there's Vietnamese, there's pho.

In Ubud, Bali, Vietnamese pho has taken on a delicate taste. Served with fresh snow peas and a wedge of lime and no other garnish to speak off, except a sprig of an amazingly spicy and fragrant basil, it's a delight, especially when the waitress blesses the soup with a white orchid to enhance the spirit of the broth.

...I happened to be in this outskirt area of Sydney and read about a museum that was putting up an "I (heart) Pho" exhibition, right? It took me a second to realize that it was an exhibition of our soup. So I went, of course. They served pho inside the museum and even imported a pho stall from Saigon, to reconstruct Saigon street food inside the museum. Then I saw teacher P. from Le Qui Don high school. Can you believe it? Of course, we ate pho together. So far from Saigon, but there we were, teacher and student, three decades later, sitting on a wooden bench, slurping, laughing, just like old times -- except we were on another continent.

...In Nargakot, Nepal, high above the clouds, there's this hotel that sometimes serves pho on weekends. Beef is not available but buffalo meat is used. The meat is a little bit chewy. But with such clear air and strong wind, everyone -- the tourists, the people in town -- everyone knows when they're making pho, even the bloody yetis.

...Did you read about "the story of Fo"? So this Vietnamese man who joined the merchant marine when the war ended, he was homesick of course, but there's no home to go back to. So he kept on sailing. One day he ended up on this island called Reunion. Far down the beach, he saw a little makeshift restaurant with coconut trees and thatched roof and, though he should really have been getting back, he headed for it. A dark-skinned, elegant-looking mademoiselle greeted him with a bright smile and gave him the menu. Conch and fish, he'd had plenty, but as he scanned the menu with the boredom of someone who had eaten too many exotic meals, he saw at the bottom of the page a word that caused him to sit up and stare: "Fo."

You guessed it. It's pho, but after many generations. Still, who would complain about spelling when the broth simmered in the kitchen? There was no rice noodle to what survived, no star anise smell, not even fish sauce. The mademoiselle with a slender figure and a bright smile made noodle out of tapioca. She rubbed it into uneven strings between her dexterous fingers, then boiled them.

Yet it was "un plat Vietnamien." Green onion was sprinkled on the soup and a waft of ginger was enough to tell him "quelque saveur de son pays" had indeed survived. When he asked her how it was that a Vietnamese-like dish ended here, she shrugged and said, "Mais, moi aussi, suis Vietnamienne" -- I'm also Vietnamese.

"But how? Impossible!"

"Five generations ago. But I'm still Vietnamese. It was my ancestors who left me the recipe," she said with utmost seriousness.

Five generations ago! He searched his high school memories and a piece of history made itself clear through the monotonous voice of a flint-skinned, bespectacled teacher who smoked while he lectured. In 1888, the French exiled King Ham Nghi and his entourage when they refused to follow French rules.

The story ended when he was late for his ship. Incroyable, non?

...Did you hear the story about a pho place in a colony in Antarctica? This Vietnamese woman, right, she's married to a scientist and they lived there and among the tundra and glaciers and penguins she grew bored. So one day...

Have broth, will travel.

Here's mine...

I was young then, barely out of college. While backpacking through Europe, I was invited on an excursion by a friend from UC Berkeley, my alma mater, who knew someone who lived in a castle in Belgium. "It's a surprise," she told me and said nothing more. We got off a train in the middle of nowhere, north of Brussels. And walked for half an hour. We passed pastures and ranches and then we entered a wood. Then, there it was, a castle with its drawbridge across a moat. There were roman statues on the lawn. I remember stopping on the drawbridge and sniffing. I hadn't expected it. But there it was, that complex aroma wafting in the air -- cinnamon and cloves and fish sauce and star anise and beef broth. Someone was making pho!

On that summer afternoon, standing over a moat with my friend ahead beckoning me to enter the European castle, that pungent and savory aroma seemed to have wafted across several continents. Smelling it, I had something close to an out-of-body experience. The smell of my Vietnamese childhood had superimposed itself on a new landscape, and all at once I was happy and nostalgic, and I felt that, though I wouldn't admit it to myself for a few years yet, were I to become a writer I would try to capture that delightful sense of transnational dislocation.

I followed my friend down the stone steps to an enormous kitchen, one that could easily fit 30 chefs. At its far end stood an elegant Asian woman in her mid-30s. She greeted us with a gracious smile and she spoke in Vietnamese: "There you are! I've been waiting and waiting. I thought the two of you got lost in the wood."

As she fed us her pho soup, she told her story. Once a high school teacher in Saigon, she'd lost her job after the war. One night she and her sister fled in a crowded boat out to sea. A Belgian merchant vessel picked everyone up and brought the lot back to Belgium.

Impoverished, she and her sister resorted to living in the basement of a church in a town outside Brussels. One day, a local baron, who had hoped to become a priest but his family forbade it, saw her while he was praying in church. They looked at each other. He fell in love. She was hesitant. But they married. Now the mother of two children of noble blood, she would sometimes catch glimpses of herself as she glided past the gilded mirrors along the old castle's corridors and shudder, wondering, Who is that? Is that me? Other times, when entertaining European royalty, she felt as if she were on a movie set and kept waiting for the director to yell "Cut!"

* *

These days if you search the Internet for the words "pho soup," you'll likely get tens of thousand of hits, from Wikipedia to various chefs giving recipes and writers waxing enthusiastic to critics providing reviews and scholars writing academic papers on the soup's origins. The Campbell Soup Company took it mainstream in 2002 by canning pho broth and aiming it at mainstream eateries. Even Food Network has chefs teaching its audience how to make pho. There is even a new word for it: Phomance. According to the New York Times, "quick search will find that it's used in two wildly different contexts. There's the jocular use, describing an overly close emotional relationship with Vietnamese food, which is often accompanied by cellphone photos of the dish in question."

But just where did this soup come from? What's almost certain is that it came from North Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, about a century ago. What is less certain is how. Seminars on the dish have scholars from all over the world arguing whether the word came from the French word feu ("fire," as in the dish pot-au-feu) or whether it descended from the word fen -- Chinese for "rice noodle." Star anise, native to southwest China, is used in combination with Vietnamese fish sauce to give pho its distinctive flavor, but French onion is also used to sweeten the broth. Cardamom comes from India but noodle is definitely Chinese. Yet in Vietnam beef was rarely used until the French came in the late 1800s.

It may sound like a contradiction to say that a distinctly Vietnamese dish most likely has both French and Chinese influences, but it isn't. Feu or fen, pho is indelibly Vietnamese because it incorporates foreign influences. Like the country whose history is one of being conquered by foreign powers and whose people must constantly adapt to survive, the soup has roots in so many heritages yet retains a distinctive Vietnamese taste.

Long ago in parochial Dalat, that lovely hill station the French built on a plateau full of pine trees, I would wake up on the weekend with that exquisite aroma of pho permeating our villa on top of a windblown hill. Downstairs in my mother's kitchen, the clattering sounds of dishes and bowls and chopsticks were welcome music to the ear. I can, despite the years, still hear it: Mother singing downstairs, her ladles clattering against the pots and pans, the steady chopping sounds of the cleaver on the worn wooden block.

That insular, serene world has irrevocably changed and can now only be had in the recalling. So many of us have scattered to all corners of the world. But I take comfort in knowing that that delectable pho aroma, too, has perforated the world.

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