Remarkable Prose: The Saigon Phở Experience

June 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

My own Phở experience in Hanoi

Anthony Bourdain, cook and bestselling author-turned-TV- celebrity is well known for is “wild-eyed” prose. You can even hear him speak it on his TV shows. His love for Vietnam is evident in his travel-food writing A Cook’s Tour.

He mentions Phở, the famous Vietnamese soup noodle dish, no less than seven times throughout his novel. Here’s what he has to say:

I sit down at a clean white counter with a crowd of Vietnamese and order a bowl of Phở, a spicy noodle soup that comes with a variety of ingredients. I’m not sure exactly which pho I’m ordering, but it all looks good, so I simply point at what the lady next to me is eating.

Is there anything better to eat on this planet than a properly made bowl of Phở? I don’t know. Precious few things can approach it. It’s got it all. A bowl of clear hot liquid loaded with shreds of fresh, white and pink crabmeat, and noodles is handed to me, garnished with bean sprouts and chopped fresh cilantro. A little plate of condiments comes next: a few wedges of lime, some ground black pepper – which, judging from my neighbours at the counter, one makes into a paste, adding lime juice to pepper and stirring with chopsticks – a dish of nuoc mam, a dish of chili fish oil, some chopped red chili peppers.

The proprietor hands me a cold plastic-wrapped towel, which, once again emulating my neighbors, I squeeze, until the air is forced to one end – and then pop loudly between my hands. Everyone claps encouragingly. This sound, the pop pop pop of plastic-wrapped hand towels exploding, is the backbeat to Saigon. You hear it everywhere. Inside the wrapper is a cold, fresh, clean towel to wash and refresh with.

The Phở is fantastic – spicy, hot, complex, refined, yet unbelievably simple. The astounding freshness of the ingredients, the brightly contrasting textures and colors, the surprising sophistication of the presentation – the whole experience is overwhelmingly perfect.

The proprietor beams at me before I even take a mouthful. He knows it’s good. I wipe my bowl out, wash it down with a little clear plastic sandwich bag of lychee juice, and hand over a few moist dong.

Word for word the best food-travel writing I’ve read so far.


Still don’t believe it? Don’t say I didn’t warn you …


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