What The Pho?

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some Vietnamese tradition, eating Pho is considered to be a form of meditation. Every time I eat it, I completely lose the sense of time and place. It is like, the Pho arrives at your table, you garnish it with the basil leaves and some of the green chilies, pick up the spoon in one hand and the chopsticks in the other,¬†and the next thing you remember is the empty bowl. No recollection of what happened in the middle. Except just a great feeling of calm and satisfaction during and afterwards.

I remember the first time I had Pho. This was probably about 10 years ago when I was working at Expedia. Somehow, in all these years of eating out and trying all kinds of world cuisine, I had never gone to a Vietnamese restaurant and never even heard of Pho.

Anyway, so one day, one of my colleagues peeks into my door and announces, “We are going out for Pho. Want to join?”

Since I had never heard the word before, the pronunciation caused a bit of discomfort and confusion.

“What?” I asked.

“We are going out for Pho! Haven’t you had it before?”

“Errr… I don’t understand what you are saying.”

I am thinking to myself, is this some kind of joke? It wasn’t like it was my birthday or something, so why would anyone want to play a prank on me? I discounted that idea.

May be this is some new fad in the food industry? I mean, they had just recently figured out how to put cheese *inside* the crust (!) and thus prepared us for the idea that anything was now possible when it came to food. In their desperation to stand out from all the cacophony and attract our attention may be they had come up some new fad now. Create some fad that sounds suspiciously like a word you aren’t supposed to say in in front of your parents and it spreads like wildfire! It is actually quite a time honored tradition in the consumer goods industry.

At this point it became clear to my colleagues that I had never heard the word before. This of course led to all the standard (well, standard to me now, but intensely interesting then) stories about other times when someone who hadn’t heard the word before heard it for the first time. None of them were suitable for work of course, but by then we were already on our way to the restaurant, so technically we were no longer at work. I think “stories you tell when someone hears the word Pho for the first time” deserve the same status in our culture as other stories that have been told by people all over the world for eons. It is such stories that tie us all together. It must be the kinship and camaraderie one feels towards his fellow human beings when one realizes that, while we may have completely separate lives, we still share some wonderful common experiences.

What is interesting is that my first experience of eating Pho was nothing particularly remarkable. It was basically a soup with some noodles and some vegetables and chicken or tofu in it. It was ok, but nothing particularly memorable. I couldn’t understand why everyone else was raving so much about this stuff. I forgot about Pho for a few years after that.

That all changed a few years later when, on one of those typical cold and rainy Sundays in December, I decided to take a day trip to Bremerton. I love this ferry every time I take it. It is long enough for you to settle down at a window after having parked the car and gotten a hot chocolate and watch the waves and other boats and seagulls and the beautiful houses that line the shore. It is one of the best experiences available in the Seattle area.

It was lunchtime by the time I landed in Bremerton and I decided to try the Vietnamese restaurant right next to the ferry terminal. I sat at a table with a nice view of the harbor. Eating something hot and steamy seemed like a good idea on such a cold day, so I ordered Pho. It arrived and then everything that happened after my first spoonful was just a blur. I just remember an almost automatic and continuous motion of my left hand stuffing noodles into my mouth and my right hand stuffing the soup in the middle whenever it could. One after another. No looking up, no thinking, no conversation, nothing. Not even the beautiful view out the window. Just me and the Pho. And the flavor, the sensations in my mouth, the water running down my nose, the sweat forming on my forehead, and my hands doing whatever they could to keep this state of bliss going as long as it was possible. That day, I understood what the Pho was all about!

What I realized then was that Pho is not a social experience for me. It is very personal. Or may be, it is not social in the way that most other social experiences are. You don’t go with a bunch of friends and talk and share food and stories. It is social in the way that when I tell someone that Pho is a form of meditation and see a glint of recognition in their eyes, we understand each other at a much deeper level than if we had shared lunch with each other and discussed the weather and politics.