Pho chua (sour pho) did not originate in Saigon, but was brought from the mountainous provinces of northern Vietnam. Some people say it was first created in Bac Ha, or Lao Cai, while others believe it originates from Lang Son. While city folks see pho chua as a new Saigon street food, it acts as a welcome reminder of home for the hill people of the far north who have moved to the big city. No matter where it comes from, pho chua has been Saigonised and Saigon has embraced it as its own, just as people from all over Vietnam are accepted as part of the city.
The noodles in Bac Ha’s pho chua are not as white as those from other provinces. They are light brown and are freshly made right in the restaurant. The sour sauce is made with a fruit vinegar and is used to cover the noodles, sliced pork, fresh herbs and roasted peanuts.
In Lang Son, pho chua is not only a dish for Tet and other holidays, but a dish for special visitors. Only important guests or those close to the host get to enjoy pho chua as part of their meal. The fresh pho noodles are served with ground peanuts, sliced herbs, pork, Vietnamese sausage and the most essential part — the sour sauce.
Saigon’s pho chua may have started out being similar to the Lang Son dish, but changes have been made to adapt it to the local palate. The sour sauce in Saigon is made from tamarind, a speciality of southern Vietnam. Tamarind can be found in many recipes, from a proper meal to snacks. And in Saigon, pho chua is not just cooked up for festivals, but for every occasion.
Pho chua in Saigon is also served with chicken and a piece of shrimp cake (cha tom). The chicken replaces the sausage, while the shrimp cake takes over from the fried sweet potato. The sweet and sour sauce together with the spice of the chillies, the rich pork crackling, the crunchy chicken and the fresh herbs make you feel like your taste buds are about to explode.
Pho chua is a product typical of the diversity of cultures in Saigon, the country’s biggest melting pot. This is a city that takes ideas from elsewhere and then creates something distinctive and with its own character.
A Tough Treat
Even though pho chua is full of flavour with its varied ingredients, it can only be found in some hidden corners of this city. The reason may lie in the way the dish needs to be cooked, starting with the sour sauce. It is a sophisticated sauce that requires a number of cooking techniques and a good sense of taste. To make an appetising sauce, the cook has to start by sautéing onion, garlic and chillies and then filtering the tamarind sauce to make sure the texture is smooth.
Although pho chua is known as smokeless pho, the serving time and the ingredient arrangement needs to be perfectly timed so it is not cold when it’s eaten. Also, because the taste of this dish is not familiar to the Saigon palate, the first bite may not be the best. It is only the second or third bite that brings out its distinctive taste.
Pho chua might be a tough one to both cook and eat, but it’s this very nature that has triggered the curiosity of many a foodie in Saigon.
If you want to check out this dish, try alley 242 Nguyen Thien Thuat, Q3 (open from 3pm to 7pm only) and 354 Le Van Luong, Q7 (open from 10pm). I assure you your taste buds will thank you later.