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The Next Ethnic Dish of the Day: Vietnamese Pho

Food: The rice noodle soup is entering the mainstream in a big way as chefs and marketers scramble to capitalize on its growing appeal.

May 13, 2002|LAURA LOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Olive oil and pasta. Salsa and tortillas. Tofu as a main course. Soy sauce as a marinade. These and other once-unfamiliar ethnic staples have found their way into American kitchens, enlivening the nation's palate and spicing up sales for restaurants and supermarkets.

Next on the menu: Vietnamese pho?

Pronounced "fuh," the beef noodle soup is the latest ethnic food that seems to have struck a chord with Americans.

Although the phenomenon is still in its infancy, pho is poised to become the next mainstream Asian food in the U.S. Its effect already has been felt in several branches of the food industry.

Across the country, chefs at upscale fusion restaurants, catering services and university campuses are scrambling to add the rice noodle soup to their menus.

A Campbell Soup Co. subsidiary has partnered with a well-known Vietnamese American chef to market a refrigerated pho broth to the food service industry.

And instant pho is coming soon to your neighborhood supermarket.

"The story of the last 15 years is that ... the core of the American diet is shrinking, and what is expanding is what used to be considered the fringe of American cooking," said Greg Drescher, education director at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif.

The burgeoning acceptance of Asian flavors already has generated a new category in grocery store sales. Packaged Asian foods accounted for $650 million in mainstream supermarket sales last year, according to Information Resources, a Chicago-based food sales research firm.

In the case of pho, culinary experts say its growing appeal is part of a national frenzy for Southeast Asian cuisine among U.S. chefs.

"Mainstream American chefs ... are being asked to put more Asian food on the menu," Drescher said. The trend is apparent at such casual-dining chains as California Pizza Kitchen, which offers Vietnamese-style spring rolls and Thai chicken pizza, and Cheesecake Factory, which serves Thai lettuce wraps and Thai chicken pasta.

Experts say pho's rising star is being helped by this trend. Introduced in the mid-1970s by immigrants who fled the communist regime in Vietnam, pho thrived in hundreds of small noodle shops that soon cropped up in Asian enclaves in San Jose, Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley. But it remained relatively unknown to the general eating public until recent years.

The U.S. government's lifting of an economic embargo against Vietnam in 1994 and subsequent steps toward trade normalization, along with a corresponding spike in American tourism to that country, also have helped fuel interest in pho.

One Vietnamese food importer said his American acquaintances began asking him about the dish for the first time after former President Clinton was reported in news accounts to have eaten chicken pho during his visit to Vietnam in late 2000.

Vietnamese restaurateurs in the U.S. have responded to this increased openness between the two countries by venturing into mainstream markets.

Among them is Sacramento chef Mai Pham--one of pho's most vocal proponents--who has partnered with Campbell subsidiary Stockpot Inc. to produce a flash-chilled pho broth to be marketed to restaurants and food service groups this year.

The product will target chefs who don't specialize in Vietnamese cooking and want to serve pho without a great deal of preparation.

"For the non-Asian chef, it gives him or her access to a cuisine that is in high demand," said Kathleen Horner, president of the Woodinville, Wash.-based producer of gourmet refrigerated soups and sauces. She declined to say how much in sales the product will generate for Stockpot.

The complexity of the dish is one obstacle pho faces in becoming as widely available as other Asian noodles, such as Japanese ramen or Chinese chow mein.

A full day of simmering beef bones with a combination of spices is required to produce the clear broth. Then comes the assembly, which begins with laying the skinny, blanched noodles at the bottom of a warmed bowl; layering slender cuts of raw and cooked beef, paper-thin yellow onion slices, chopped green onions and cilantro on top; then ladling broth over the noodles. The dish is served with a plate of fresh toppings: Asian basil and saw-leaf herb, bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos and a wedge of lime.

"The broth has to be steaming, bubbly hot," Pham said, "so that when the [herbs] hit the broth, they just wilt immediately and send the flavors up to your face."

Stockpot also has signed on to produce a line of Vietnamese dipping sauces and Thai curries using Pham's recipes.

Further evidence of pho's growing appeal is its increasing availability on college cafeteria menus. A number of West Coast universities with large Asian student populations have introduced pho in their dining halls.

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