“A true pho eater will taste the broth first before eating the noodles,” Hien Le, 67, said before I took my first sip. On a cold, windy Sunday in January, Le was showing me how to cook pho ga, a traditional Vietnamese dish. Cooking pho is a custom that Le takes very seriously, even though his affable personality and ever-present smile can occasionally give the impression of a carefree attitude. After growing up in Nha Que, a village outside of Hanoi, Le moved to the United States and opened a Vietnamese restaurant in California before moving to Lowell.
Pho, pronounced “fuh,” is a soup that originated in the early 20th century in Hanoi, Vietnam, although variations of it have likely been around for centuries. With its vibrant Southeast Asian community, excellent pho is easy to find in the Merrimack Valley, although quite a few Americans first learned about it on CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” during the episode when the host joined then-President Barack Obama in a noodle shop.
Pho is at heart something very simple — a noodle soup, combined with herbs, vegetables and meat, usually beef or chicken. Healthy and inexpensive, it is the ultimate comfort food, and if you believe its adherents, a hot bowl of it might save you a trip to the doctor’s office during flu season.
For many Vietnamese, pho is more than just a traditional dish. It represents a connection between generations and acts as a reminder that no matter where you are in the world, home is never far away.
Le’s daughter Nancy understands the dish’s significance very well. She has seen her father cook pho since her childhood. Although she was born in the United States, Nancy has traveled to Vietnam on numerous occasions. At home in Lowell, pho isn’t just food — it is a symbol of her heritage.
The first step in making pho ga is sourcing fresh chickens. Le likes to buy them from his favorite live poultry market in Boston’s Chinatown. When asked why he prefers this particular place, he notes that “this market feeds the chickens a vegetarian diet.” Why is this important? He claims a clean diet makes the chicken and its bones more flavorful, and this means that the broth — the most important part — is more flavorful, as well.
During a trip to the market to buy a chicken, we also pick up a few extra ingredients, including scallions and parsley. Le already has everything else we need back in his Lowell kitchen: lemon leaves, lemon grass, ginger, onions, chilies and fish sauce.
Once the chickens are cleaned, the process of making pho ga takes a little over four hours.
The whole chicken is used for the broth, and nothing is wasted. Rice noodles are soaked in cold water for two hours, then blanched in hot water for 30 seconds to a minute before serving in a bowl. Light garnishes include fresh parsley, lime leaves, thinly sliced red onion, limes and hot chilies.
People from Vietnam and other Asian countries often use different amounts of noodles, and there are numerous regional variations on the dish. Laotian pho, for instance, is noodle heavy, and sometimes includes sugar. Cambodian pho typically includes toppings such as hoisin and Sriracha sauce.
Le is a purist when preparing pho and wanted me to have the very best experience. In the end, I chose only to add fresh chilies and lime to my bowl of pho, and it was perfection.
After spending a day with Le and learning how to cook pho, I set out to find some of the best bowls of pho in the Merrimack Valley. One of my favorites was at Saigon Noodles in Manchester, N.H. Saigon Noodles’ simple menu includes a variety of pho options, including vegetarian. Pho 88 in Lowell has an extensive menu with many pho options, as well as a variety of Vietnamese dishes. Saigon Sandwich in Nashua, N.H., started as a banh mi shop and extended its menu to include pho and other Vietnamese dishes. In restaurants, pho is served with garnishes on the side so you can flavor it to taste.