In Grade 4, well into the school year at St. Vincent School, a skinny Vietnamese kid with puffy black hair in a Bruce Lee sort of cut arrived in my class. We couldn’t pronounce his name, Than Nguyen, the way he did. The version we settled on sounded more like “Tung.”
Than spent his first day in terror and silence, his thin frame motionless behind his desk. Within weeks, he understood our playground banter. In a few months, he was fluent in English. His lunches, however, remained sources of exotic mysteries to the rest of us. I think he dared one of the other kids to bite into the small red chilies he often brought. The other kid cried and we all laughed, including Than.
Sometimes, I think about Than as I rip pieces of floral purple-and-green basil into a bowl of pho, or chase slippery rice noodles around with plastic chopsticks at Tau Bay or Ninh Kieu, or any one of the dozens of excellent selections in the city.
You see, pho, that cauldron of steaming Vietnamese soup, is not just a go-to sustenance in Edmonton for me. Pho was the culinary game-changer. It brought fresh herbs like Thai basil into my life. It brought the novel crunch of bean sprouts, ridiculous mountains of fresh cilantro, basil, shoestring carrots and cucumber matchsticks, plunged into soulful soup stocks into my otherwise insular world. It was, and still is, like eating a bowl of sunshine and elemental energy that can get me through the maw of an Edmonton winter.
If I feel a cold coming on, I go for pho. (It’s a magic bullet of chicken stock and chili spice, two proven cold-virus assassins.)
If I’m beaten down by a six-month winter, I go for pho. (Why do hot-climate cultures make such excellent cold-weather food?)
And when I travel, it’s the first stop I make from the highway or airport. I always choose the amber-coloured cinnamon-roasted ginger-and-star-anise scented chicken broth type and my husband always orders the murky, red-chili, satay-rich beef broth. Pho accommodates that type of diversity. And in that way, it’s a lot like Edmonton.
Jennifer Cockrall-King is a second-generation Edmontonian, and the author of Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution. She has yet to make a decent bowl of pho at home.