Not just pho show: Phnom Penh streets offer up a classic Vietnamese delicacy

Pho: rice noodles and slim cuts of meat in a hot spicy broth. NICK STREET
Pho: rice noodles and slim cuts of meat in a hot spicy broth. NICK STREET

Not just pho show: Phnom Penh streets offer up a classic Vietnamese delicacy

Of Vietnam’s diverse cuisine, pho is one of the most well-known dishes. Originating in the Nam Dinh province southeast of Hanoi, and traditionally dished out by street vendors at breakfast and in the evening, globalisation has brought the hot rice noodle soup to cities all over the world, and it now boasts the status of national delicacy.

This, along with Vietnam and Cambodia’s complex history, shouldn’t make it too surprising that the dish can easily be found on the streets of Phnom Penh. In particular, it can be found in the area between Streets 95 and 105: the roads to the west of Monivong Boulevard’s Vietnam Supermarket and a few blocks north of the Vietnamese Embassy are home to several bustling pho stalls.

Standard pho consists of rice noodles and slim cuts of meat, whether beef, pork or chicken, in a hot, spicy broth. Though pho originated in northern Vietnam, civilians who fled communist rule in North Vietnam for the south following the 1954 partition introduced the dish to this region – and South Vietnam gradually developed its own take on the dish. Southerners introduced meatballs, along with the extra garnishes of lime, beansprouts, and culantro (the Khmer name being ji ana), Thai basil and cinnamon basil herbs; it is this variation that is most common on the streets of Phnom Penh, and will cost you somewhere between $5 and $7.

These extra condiments are served up on separate plates at the stalls in this area, leaving it up to the diner whether or not he or she adds it to the broth. Other seasonings on the tables include small plates of finely chopped fresh red chillies, Hoisin sauce, sweet chilli sauce, and Chinsu soy sauce.

The pho stalls around this area are at their busiest at around 9am. Drawing up a small plastic stool, reaching for a pair of chopsticks from the jug of boiled water and settling down to watch the world go by as you tuck into the soup makes for a highly enjoyable breakfast experience.

The spice of the chillies, lemongrass and lime have that overpowering freshness that you can feel almost cleansing your sinuses – so it’s just as well that tissues are usually provided. At the stalls along Street 105, the flavour provides a blast to the senses that even overrides the putrid stench of the murky canal below.

At most of these places, there are jugs of hot tea poured into glasses full of ice to help wash down the food and neutralise that tingling sensation on the tongue; some will also provide sweet iced coffee and cans of
soft drinks.

And these pho stalls are popular with Khmers and Vietnamese alike. Mrs Long, who has recently taken over the 20-year-old family business of Chichum Nas on the corner of Streets 105 and 386, says that the busiest times are at breakfast and then later in the afternoon, between 3pm and 6pm. Long is Khmer, so why did her family take on pho? She grins, perhaps at my ignorance. Because it’s good for business, obviously. As she washes beansprouts in a bowl of boiled water, two huge vats of broth steaming behind her, she jokes with her customers and the owner of the almost identical pho stall next door. She’s certainly not wrong. ​​​​​​

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