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The origin of pho chicken soup (SBS interview)

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

There are few dishes as beloved as chicken soup – a universal source of healing that also serves up history in a bowl.

Excerpt from Neha Kale, "From avgolemono to pho: around the world in chicken soup", SBS, 15 July 2020:

Minh Nguyen, who runs Sydney's Vietnamese eatery Madame Nhu with his wife, Nhu Nguyen, says that chicken pho – or pho gà – is also a “product of history and a product of circumstance”.

“Chicken pho came about because of the wartime restrictions,” says Nguyen. He adds that it was an alternative to beef pho or pho bò, which was conceived in Hanoi in the late 19th century and came about when the influence of Chinese chefs collided with the French colonial demand for beef. “There are still debates about it, but some historians believe that during the late 1930s, the government decided to limit the selling of beef – so chicken pho came about in that context.”

In 1954, Nguyen says, chicken pho moved south when over a million northerners left the region during the partition of the country. “Then when Vietnamese refugees came to foreign countries, there wasn’t any pho around, so they started to cook it themselves – you hear stories of Vietnamese refugees opening restaurants in their own kitchens.”

Pho gà, Nguyen says, fits into the Vietnamese philosophy of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ foods – a belief, related to the Chinese yin and yang, that food is a source of both nutrition and energetic qualities.

“When your body is not well with a cold or fever, you wouldn’t eat food that is too ‘hot’ like a mango for instance,” says Nguyen, who explains that Madame Nhu simmers both chicken and beef bones, adds ginger, star anise and cinnamon along with vegetables like carrots and celery to make pho gà. “Pho gà is considered a neutral dish, so when you are sick, you avoid beef and you have chicken. Ginger is always essential, which is the Chinese influence – ginger and chicken always go together. Chicken soup takes on a healing role that is universal across different cultures.”


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