That’s not pho-nny!

I came across this NYT piece a few weeks ago and let it go. The writer seemed to have good intentions about making healthy, tasty soups and I’m a firm believer in “to each their own.” But then I wrote my own pho recipe, which reminded me about the complexities of this soup, and when a friend posted the same article again on her Facebook page, my reaction was far different.

So what is it with Americans that we can’t seem to leave good enough alone when it comes to ethnic foods? Why the urge to Americanize things and make them healthier? Is vegetarian pho really healthier? Not necessarily. Beef or chicken pho is pretty darn healthy already–when made with good ingredients from scratch these soups have low fat content and no processed additives. (And really, the folks in Vietnam really don’t strike me as the unhealthy and obese types.) I have long suspected that many attempts at making ethnic food more American or “healthy,” has more to do with replacing unfamiliar ingredients with more familiar ones–particularly when American cooking tends to shy away from the nose-to-tail approach.

But back to the vegetarian pho and my beef with it. (Haha! Sorry, couldn’t help that one.) As my cousin succinctly pointed out, “It’s not like there isn’t a Vietnamese vegetarian tradition that we need to rely on NYT writers to invent veggie dishes for us.” Exactly. There is a whole plethora of delectable Vietnamese vegetarian dishes. After all, with a deep Buddhist tradition, vegetarian offerings are part of the daily meal-scape in Vietnam, ranging from simple sauteed veggies to rice paper rolls stuffed with tofu and herbs as well as temple food, which tend to make use of imitation meat. In addition to the monks and temple devotees, many average Vietnamese families follow the lunar calendar and refrain from meat and fish when the moon is full and on other auspicious days. So rather than trying to Americanize and vegetarian-ize dishes, why not whip up some grilled eggplant with scallion oil, green papaya salad or spiced tofu with tumeric? And if you’re really hardcore, it is amazing what real Vietnamese cooking can do with imitation meat—lemongrass chicken, grilled pork with noodles, and even braised fish in caramel sauce.

Let me be clear that I have no problem with people cooking whatever they’d like based on inspiration from other cultures, specific dishes, or even just aromas and memories. But what really bugs me is when writers try to make ethnic dishes more “healthy” and still think that it bears any resemblance to the original. It is entirely one thing to make a vegetarian version of something or substitute ingredients for allergies, and indeed there are Vietnamese restaurants that serve vegetarian pho, but it is truly blasphemous to use quinoa or soba noodles just for the sake of fusion or a nod to trendy health foods. Or to put it another way, it is no longer pho, just soup.

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