Pho-nomenal

Czech society, even in an international city like Prague, is remarkably homogenous. As a result of the events of the 20th century (which I will not explain here as it would take away from the main focus of this blog) many of the minorities that were present in myriad countries in Central and Eastern Europe were, forcibly or otherwise, removed from their communities. A striking example of this is the expulsion of the Germans from Czechoslovakia after WW2, in an attempt to seek retribution for Hitler’s reign of terror and destruction across the region. While in 1920 Czechs and Slovaks made up 65% of the population, the same ethnic groups made up 95% of the population in 1980. The ethnic diversity has since recovered somewhat, but the country has exchanged its historical minorities (Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Jews) for new ones.

In the 1970s, Vietnamese immigrants were allowed to travel to communist Czechoslovakia as guest workers, encouraged by the Vietnamese government to learn European trade skills and bring them back to help the developing Asian economy. However, after the collapse of Communism in Europe in 1989, many of the immigrant workers decided to make the Czechoslovakia their home; when the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Vietnamese workers became citizens of the newly founded states. Immigration into the Czech Republic from Vietnam as since continued, and the country has since become the location of the third largest Vietnamese Diaspora in Europe.

The Vietnamese population in Prague is not hard to find, as their businesses are prevalent in the everyday lives of most citizens. Vietnamese restaurants can be found in every neighborhood of the city, and Vietnamese-run corner stores are ubiquitous throughout Prague. While I often visit and utilize the corner-stores, known as Potraviny, the Vietnamese restaurants are a larger part of my weekly routine.

Prague in the fall can be cold and cloudy, with rain and wind battering pedestrians between the metro or tram stations and their destinations. Thankfully, Vietnamese restaurants always have the perfect cure for a case of rainy-day blues: a bowl of Pho. For those who don’t know what pho is, or how to pronounce it (Phuh not Phö), I will give a short description of the magical yet simple soup.

BROTH: The broth of pho is a beef broth, made from bones as well as meat, oxtail, onion, and spices. It is a well-balanced mix of salt and fat, deeply satisfying to slurp, as well as to smell. I often add some spice, either in the form of Siracha, or homemade chili sauces that seem to always be present on the tables and counters of the Vietnamese restaurants near me. This spicy-salty-fatty-umami broth is almost addicting, and deeply warming, like chicken broth on a cold winter day.

 

NOODLES: Noodles that come with pho are long, flat, and generally wide rice noodles. These are generally dried noodles, but some places make their noodles fresh in-house. Wide rice noodles are the perfect complement to the broth, as they soak up the delicious beefy base and add a fantastically chewy and soft texture to the already delicious flavor.

 

MEAT AND GARNISH: The toppings of pho depend both on what you order and which restaurant you patronize. Pho Ga (Chicken) and Pho Bo (Beef) are the two most common, at least Prague, and the decision is largely just a matter of personal taste. I tend to prefer the Pho Ga, but only because I have discovered that generally the chicken is more flavorful than the beef chunks. Other toppings are also added, such as bean sprouts, chilis, cilantro, green onions, and a wedge of lime or lemon. Bean sprouts and green onions add a satisfying and unexpected crunch, while the chilis add spikes of sudden heat that seem to make the soup even more of a ward against the cold outdoors. The cilantro and citrus juice add another layer of flavor complexity to the broth, offsetting the spice and fat with a needed measure of acidity. The toppings of pho are generally overlooked, but they are the puzzle piece that transforms a normal broth and noodles into a complex and delicious soup.

 

Pho has quickly become a large part of my culinary life here in Prague, and it is interesting to step back and consider how amazing it is that it is so widely available. It is remarkable that such a culturally distinct community like the Vietnamese can survive in a region of the world that in the past 100 years has been so unexposed to and uninterested in minority populations. I spoke with one of my teachers on this subject in the last week and learned that the Czechs value and enjoy the Vietnamese population, something which is in striking contrast to the way immigrant populations are treated many other parts of Europe. Obviously comparing the two is like apples and oranges (as the saying goes), but it still leads me to consider how other European cities and states could change their view towards immigrants. This goes deeper than just culinary diversity; minority populations bring cultural phenomena and novel perspectives to the countries in which they settle. While the main benefit of the Vietnamese population for me is food, for others in the country it is and can be so much more