Welcome to episode 2 of the Hungry for Words podcast starring best-selling author and chef Kathleen Flinn.
In this episode, Kathleen talks to noted Vietnamese food writer, chef, and author Andrea Nguyen about everything from dumplings and pho to her dramatic escape from her home country in 1975 at the height of the war.
Andrea is the author of several books, including the classic Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, Asian Tofu and Asian Dumplings, and The Pho Cookbook. Get more about Andrea - plus the recipe for the Rotisserie Chicken Pho - from the episode here on Hungry for Words.
Below is a partial transcription of the podcast.
Kathleen: Hello and welcome to "Hungry for Words, The Podcast," in which I talk to the most interesting people writing about the food, I make some of the recipes and then we talk about it, and you get to listen in. I'm your host, Kathleen Flinn.
Today, I'll be talking to Andrea Nguyen, an award-winning author of numerous books on the cuisine of her homeland, including the classic, "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen." We'll talk about her latest book, "The Pho Cookbook" over steaming bowls of the noodle soup. We'll also talk about dumplings, tofu, and how her family dramatically escaped the war-torn country in 1975.
This episode of "Hungry for Words" is sponsored by Wolf, encouraging you to reclaim your kitchen starting with one home-cooked family meal per week. Visit reclaimthekitchen.com for tips, techniques and recipes from Wolf cooking tools. And by our media partner, foodista.com. Join a passionate community of food lovers at foodista.com. And by our partner, Book Larder, Seattle's community cookbook bookstore. Learn more at booklarder.com.
Tomorrow, I'm gonna interview Andrea, and I have her book, "The Pho Cookbook." Forever, I thought it was pho, I think it's still pronounced pho. And I have to say I've never actually attempted to make pho, but I am really excited about it. So I was looking through it and she has a whole bunch of different recipes. So she has the classic beef, classic chicken, and they look great, but they also look like they take four or five hours, which I don't really have.
So then I was looking at her quick chicken pho, which sounded really good, but she said it was pho-ish, so it's not really pho. But then I'm flipping through and then I see something that she calls Pho Ga Quay, Rotisserie Chicken Pho, and I was like, "That has my name all over it." And I like this because, to me, I felt like it was sort of more real stock-ish because you take the actual chicken carcass, according to her recipe, you take it, you kind of break it up, and then you simmer it along with celery and apple and napa cabbage and carrot and cilantro.
Now, I'm taking the star anise, cloves, some coriander seeds, and cinnamon, and then over medium heat, you toast the spices for several minutes. I'm now going to add some ginger and some onion. And then now, I'm gonna add in all the chicken and all the other stuff, and you let that simmer for about an hour, and then see how it goes.
And now, I'm going to strain it. And I have to say, it smells pretty great. I'm going to put it aside till tomorrow.
Hey, welcome to Seattle.
Andrea: Thank you so much. And you know, I have to say, when I walked through you're door, I smelled this beautiful fragrance of pho, and I was so happy.
Kathleen: I have to tell you, I started it last night, at like 9:00, and I wasn't done until about midnight. Because I had to go shopping, I just all of a sudden went, "Wait, she's coming tomorrow and I got to go get that stuff and figure out what I'm gonna make." But I picked the rotisserie chicken pho. Is it pho?
Andrea: It's pho if you want to really impress a Vietnamese native speaker, but if you just say...
Andrea: Yeah, pho, like you're asking a question.
Kathleen: Kind of like how a Valley girl says it, like, "Pho?"
Andrea: Yeah, like "I want some pho right now."
Kathleen: Okay, I want some pho.
Andrea: Yeah, yeah.
Kathleen: All right. Well, this is, like, the most helpful pronunciation guide, I have to tell you.
Andrea: Always add a question mark at the end of the word pho.
Kathleen: All right. So other question I have to ask you is how you pronounce your last name.
Andrea: It's pronounced Nguyen, like N-hyphen-W-I-N.
Andrea: You can always "Win" and it will always be like a win-win situation, I suppose.
Kathleen: My husband and I were having this whole conversation about last night. And I thought, "Oh, my gosh, I'm gonna mispronounce your name. I'm gonna pho wrong." So here we go. So it's all good. Your other books are easier, there was tofu, I can say that. That's pretty clear. And dumplings, which are universal.
Andrea: You know, pho is a new word for the American-English language dictionary. And so one of the problems is that we know we no longer have to put an accent mark on it, so it looks like pho.
Kathleen: Yeah, that' true. Because if you walk around international district, they all have the, you know...
Andrea: The diacritics.
Andrea: And those things look so funky, and there's like two of them on that letter O, and so I always tell people, like, in Vietnamese, when it's just P-H-O without any of funny little cookie dickies, you know, accent marks, that is pronounced pho, and once that you get a little side hook on the O, then that is pronounced pho. But then once that you have a little question mark above the O, it become pho.
Kathleen: And pho is what we're talking about.
Andrea: Correct. You know, pho is a word that is based upon a Chinese term for flat rice noodles, fun. I don't really believe that there is a precursor for, like, the other words for pho. It's just pho. It's almost like a word that Vietnamese people, they sort of...they adapted from Cantonese, or their pidgin version of Cantonese way back when pho originated in the early part of the 20th century.
Kathleen: Interesting. In reading your book, you talked about that being the origin of pho, right, was in the early 20th century.
Andrea: Yes, and there's a lot of murky mythology about the origin of pho. And so some people have, who allows it, "Oh my gosh, you know, it came from French pot-au-feu because look how pho sounds like feu, fire, in pot-au-feu." So the French were in Vietnam at that time as the colonial overlords of Vietnam. And they began slaughtering a lot of cattle. And the Vietnamese were using the cattle as draft animals, not as food. And all of sudden, there were these scraps sitting around. And there was a particular water buffalo noodle soup that was being served on the streets in and around Hanoi. So we're talking about the northern part of Vietnam, the northern part closest to the border with China.
So this noodle soup made with water buffalo had like these little round rice noodles, like rice vermicelli. All of sudden, there were sales on beef. And people didn't have a taste for beef, but the sales were really good, because the butchers were like, "Hey, we got to get rid of these really like tough cuts of meat and bones." And the food vendors were like, "Oh, here's a business opportunity," and they started switching out the water buffalo for the beef.
And then along the way, they were like, "This tastes better with flat rice noodles instead of..." So we're talking about noodles that look so, like, pad thai, or linguine shape. And so they made that switch and it became like this hit with a lot of working-class folks who were, like, working on the shipping, like merchant ships on the river there, in Northern Vietnam.
And as Hanoi became more urbanized, the noodle spread throughout the city, and so it became this city thing, and it became a food vendor thing. So you can imagine, like, you know, the 21st century version would be like, I don't know, taco truck, you know, [inaudible 00:08:23] taco trucks gone wild. And here's like the noodle soup's like "Woo hoo!" Everybody goes crazy for it. And people from all different walks of life come to pho and have pho at the table, and they're eating it out on the street.
Kathleen: And I bet it was probably inexpensive if they were making it, essentially, out of rice noodles and these super cheap cuts of beef. I have one question though. Where did the water buffalo come from beforehand?
Andrea: They are also a primary draft animal in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. They are placid animals that we love, and so like when you look at Vietnamese art, oftentimes, you'll see a little boy painted atop a water buffalo in the rice patty and everyone looks at that and everyone goes, "Oh, it's the water buffalo." And at certain times, you know, the water buffalo is harvested, but oftentimes, the water buffalo is just out in the field working. If you were to travel to Vietnam, you would still see in rural areas, sometimes, you know, water buffalo roaming. And they have a special place in our hearts.
Kathleen: Let's try the pho that I made. I will say that I was kinda like, hmm, I'm kinda nervous because I'm making this for the first time and I'm cooking for an expert.
Andrea: I love food that whoever cooks for me, and this smells really, really good.
Kathleen: Oh, thanks.
Andrea: I'm not gonna talk for that much, or I'm gonna talk with my mouth open. It's aerating things.
Kathleen: It's aerating, I like that.
Andrea: I think you did a bang-up job.
Kathleen: Thank you.
Andrea: Pho is about the noodle soup but it's also about the spices and it's about the experience and it's about the noodles. And I thought to myself, you know, how can I tell people about making, creating their own pho experience so the spice blend, the pho spice blend really allows me to do that. You know, it's got the star anise, and fennel, and coriander, and cinnamon, and clove, and black pepper. And I'll use it in lieu of five-spice. I will also mix it with salt and create like a rub for steaks.
Kathleen: So let's talk about the whole condiment thing, because to me, this has always been part of the whole experience. You go and they bring you all the stuff and how are you supposed to eat it. And it's interesting, because earlier in the book, you said you guys didn't do that. You're much, much more purer.
Andrea: It's because my parents were both born in Northern Vietnam. And their pho experience was one that was not born from bodacious Southern Vietnamese living. So they both migrated from Northern Vietnam to Southern Vietnam and settled in Saigon. And this is like the '50s and my father was a military governor and he went all over the provinces and stuff. So they were familiar with southern food, but there were certain things that they're very traditional about.