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Home » Discover Rackham » Piping Hot Bowl of History: The Story of Phở’

Necessity is the mother of invention, and nowhere is this more true than in the kitchen. Dinnertime as an act of love and survival has borne some of the world’s most remarkable dishes—meals with a story to tell.

Rackham student Khánh Linh Trinh is an Asian languages and cultures Ph.D. candidate, a food historian, and a self-described “food enthusiast” who studies Vietnamese culinary histories. Her dissertation focus is on the legacy of the southward exodus in the aftermath of the First Indochina War, examining how this critical moment in modern Vietnamese history is foundational in the emergence of a Vietnamese national cuisine.

Khánh Linh Trinh tends to her garden, smiling.

Rackham student and food historian Khánh Linh Trinh tends to her family’s backyard garden in rural Oregon.

According to Trinh, the massive piping hot bowls of phở that we enjoy in the U.S., heaped with rice noodles, fresh herbs, savory proteins, and topped with sriracha and hoisin sauce, first appeared in North Vietnam in the late 19th century.

Under French colonial occupation at the time, many northerners experienced severe land and labor exploitation, low wages, and high taxes. The great famine of 1945 drastically exacerbated these conditions in the north, resulting in starvation and the death of over 2 million people. It was a period of time when waste was unthinkable and survival was paramount.

“The Vietnamese thought that the French use of beef was wasteful,” Trinh says. “People started gathering what remained, cheap cuts of beef such as sirloin steak and beef tendon, using beef bones and adding southeast Asian spices: star anise, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cloves, and black cardamom. Fish sauce was an essential ingredient, enhancing the depth of flavor, accompanying the sweetness released from the spices and the bones.”

After simmering for 10 hours, the broth was complete and served simply with small slices of beef deemed undesirable to the French colonizers, alongside rice noodles and scallion.

“You shouldn’t take food for granted, even the smallest things,” Trinh says. “Each ingredient, each recipe, is a testament to incredible processes and journeys.”

A Culinary Tradition Migrates

Phở’ continued to evolve in the aftermath of the First Indochina War, when Vietnam gained independence from French occupation in 1954 and the Geneva Conference divided the nation: In the north, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was led by Ho Chi Minh, while the State of Vietnam in the south was led by Roman Catholic Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

A 1956 election was scheduled to reunify the nation, but for the 300 days preceding it, the borders between the north and the south remained open in an effort called Operation Passage to Freedom (1954-55). During this time, with assistance from the U.S. military, an estimated 1 million Vietnamese people migrated, most from the north to the south, bringing their unique regional cultures and cuisines with them—including phở.

“In Vietnam, people don’t really write down recipes,” Trinh says. “Instead, there’s all these poems, little songs that you sing to teach the next generation how to cook. My mom used to sing one to me growing up—Cơm phải có hành. Canh phải có mắm—meaning, ‘rice-based meals must have scallion and soups must be flavored with fish sauce.’ It’s a beautiful tradition, an inheritance.”

With recipes alive in the heads, hearts, and hands of Vietnamese migrants, culinary traditions traveled well and allowed for the flexible incorporation of new elements.

To adapt to the tastes of the southern Vietnamese palate, extra sweetness was added to phở’ using MSG and other spices. In contrast to the chilly winters of the north, southerners enjoy a tropical climate; fresh herbs and bean sprouts were added to the dish in order to add a cooling effect to the broth. One of the biggest changes to phở during this time was the addition of condiments like hoisin sauce, soy sauce, and sriracha.

“In the north, the purity of the broth is important,” Trinh says. “Traditionally, the only condiments that northerners add into phở are pickled garlic, chillies, and a fresh tomato-chilies sauce.” According to Trinh, the addition of hoisin and soy sauce can be attributed to the influx of Chinese migrants to the country following the fall of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The spicy kick of sriracha has an undeniable connection to the cuisine of Thailand.

“Vietnamese food is incredibly diverse. It’s not just the north and south that have an influence. There are many regional differences and very distinct ethnic foods,” Trinh says.

A Global Gift

As migration continued after the Vietnam War, the tradition of phở spanned the globe, including the super sized bowls we enjoy in the U.S. today.

“For Vietnamese people who experienced so many hardships, it’s a very special moment to enjoy a great bowl of phở with a lot of meat and lots of toppings,” Trinh says.

“The ingredients in our food have helped transform civilizations, cultures, and cuisines. They shape who you and I are today.”

Visit Khánh Linh Trinh’s blog to learn more about the history and culture of Vietnam through its cuisine and get incredible recipes:

How Rackham Helps

During the fall 2022 semester, Trinh was a recipient of conference travel funding from Rackham, supporting her travel to Hawaii for the Association for Asian Studies conference, where she presented a paper.

“During my time at U-M, Rackham has been incredibly supportive in terms of both funding and professional development,” Trinh says. “The conference travel funding was generous, and the overall experience was valuable to both my intellectual and professional development.”.