Notes from West London · Word of the week

Word of the week: pho

Pho, as you may know, is a Vietnamese dish, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary website as “a type of soup … usually containing noodles (= long, thin strips made from flour, water, and often egg) and small pieces of meat”. Pho is also the name of a chain of restaurants here in the UK, describing itself as “Vietnamese Street Food”. Its website shows that they have nearly 30 branches, ranging alphabetically from Balham, Battersea and Birmingham to Westfield and Wimbledon.

Over the last two months my 15-year-old son and I have been regular visitors to a different local pho restaurant at weekends, for him to have a late lunch of “baby pho” (which is still a decent-sized bowl of soup) and bubble tea. The latter is a cold, lemon-flavoured drink served with little bubbles of strawberry popping candy. Having eaten lunch already I usually just have a drink. These visits have served two main purposes: getting him out of the house on cold winter afternoons, and ensuring that he drinks enough liquid. They have also taken the place of trips to local pubs, documented in various earlier Blog posts such as this one from 2016.

The arrival of the festive season has put a halt to our mid-afternoon pho lunches for a while. On each of the last two weekends my son has suggested it but we have had other things going on. Before November we hadn’t visited that specific restaurant together for over three years. Before that we used to eat there more frequently, often for a quick meal before dance classes.

When I was my son’s age there were no Vietnamese restaurants here in West London. There was the odd Chinese place, there were plenty of Indian restaurants, and kebab houses were still a novelty. That’s as exotic as it got around here. Andy’s Kebabs, next to Turnham Green station, was the place I frequented most often. Many nights out, at places like the Marquee Club or the Nashville Rooms, ended with a small doner (50p), eaten on the way home. These days most of the Chinese restaurants have gone, converted into Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai places. The one on Turnham Green Terrace became a pizza restaurant many years ago.

Some weeks back, on a Saturday morning, I caught part of a cookery show on TV. This is something I rarely do. It was after one of the Rugby World Cup games. The Hairy Bikers, as they call themselves, were travelling round the USA in a most entertaining way, and explained how pho got its name, and how it is pronounced. It comes from the French “pot-au-feu” (reflecting historical French influence in the region), a phrase I have come across recently in Hilary Mantel’s “A Place of Greater Safety”. (It’s the longest book I have attempted to read in a long time.) The Kindle dictionary definition is, “a French soup of meat, typically boiled beef, and vegetables cooked in a large pot”, and pho is their version of it, made with noodles. The pronunciation is the same as the French “feu” (or “fur” in English, if you don’t pronounce the “r” at the end).

Anyone who knows me knows how little I have travelled. Apart from trips to the USA I have never left Europe, and am therefore in no position to compare Asian food here in the UK with how it tastes in its various countries of origin. However, one of my wife’s nephews, who travelled extensively throughout Vietnam a few years back, living largely on a diet of pho, has visited our local pho restaurant. He confirmed that what they’re serving here is just as good as what he ate in South East Asia. I don’t know whether that also applies to the bubble tea though.

 

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