Food Fight: The Pho Dilemma

By Brent Ramirez
Blog Content Contributor

If you keep up with the Asian food scene, you’ll know that there has recently been some pretty big controversy within it. For some, the matters weren’t too serious. But for many, the issue of cultural appropriation was once again in the spotlight thanks to a video about soup.      

About a month ago, food magazine, Bon Appétit posted a video originally titled “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho,” which immediately became the source of online outrage for about two weeks, and with good reason. The video features Tyler Akin, a white chef and owner of Philadelphia’s Stock restaurant, explaining on how to eat the Asian noodle dish, pho. From his taboo view on hoisin and sriracha in the soup, to his very unorthodox method of using chopsticks, it was easy to see how the video garnered a good amount anger from many people, particularly in the Asian-American communities online.

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They both have noodles, they both have broth, they both have meat, but they are not the same. Photo by Jennifer Servellon

For those of you who don’t know what pho is, it is a Vietnamese noodle soup with a broth made from the tears of a phoenix, noodles made from the hair of angels (not to get confused with angel hair pasta) and cuts of either beef or chicken farmed by Old McDonald himself. Okay, maybe not quite. Actually, it is an incredible dish with a beef stock broth and rice noodles, traditionally served with beef or chicken cuts. If you ask any experienced foodie or any Asian person, they’ll tell you that pho is the lifeblood that drives the dreams of champions and is one of the best hangover cures out there. Seriously, it is heavenly. If you haven’t tried it, get in your car and go find yourself a good bowl of pho.

But back to Akin… Despite explicitly stating that it was his own approach to eating the dish and that “it’s not the only way,” people were still livid. People bashed him for his insensitivity and cultural appropriation of pho, leaving comments like “Hey Vietnamese people, guess what? we have been eating pho the wrong way,” and “Oh, look, a white person telling us how to eat foreign food. It must be such a lovely view from such a high horse.”

As a first generation Filipino-American, I can understand why many Asian people were upset. I’ve had my fair share of homemade pho from my friends’ parents and the experience that I was familiar with was not reflected in Akin’s video whatsoever. While I do agree with many of the comments and complaints that people had for the video, there was one that I could not completely get on board with. In the video, Akin says that pho is the new ramen, with the context that it is on the rise as a popular Asian dish. This was one of the most argued points I saw brought up in the comments. People were heavily offended that the two foods were compared to one another, calling foul to the “apparent” racism and ignorance of Akin altogether.

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Packaged Ramen Noodles. Photo by Jennifer Servellon

Here’s where I stand; while I understand these two dishes are from two very different Asian cultures, I do believe it is fair to make a comparison between the two. They both have noodles, they both have broth and they both have meats and other toppings in them. Yes, these are surface level comparisons, but you can still make them. They are both Asian noodle dishes. Hell, they were both featured in “ASIAN NOODLE SOUPS!,” a video by the popular Asian-American YouTubers the FUNG BROS (check out their videos for great discussions on Asian-American culture through food, fashion, sports and more).

The complaint about Akin comparing the two dishes is like saying you can’t compare apples to oranges, a phrase that I have never found to hold any ground either. Seriously. They’re both colorful, round fruits grown on trees, that produce popular juice drinks. I’m pretty sure I could bombard you with more fruit comparisons but I want to get to my point. I don’t think it’s fair to bash Akin, or anyone for that matter, for comparing two things. Yes I am Filipino, not Vietnamese or Japanese, therefore I don’t know the intricacies and complexities in pho and ramen respectively. I do know that there are a world of differences in the two, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be compared. Two things don’t have to be identical to be comparable. The whole point of comparing things is to determine the similarities and differences between them.

All in all, Bon Appétit and Akin put together a video that didn’t show pho in its true light. It’s understandable to see where this backlash came from. A beloved Vietnamese dish was finally given the opportunity to receive some widespread recognition from audiences that may have never heard of it, but instead, the pho that was shown was unlike the traditional dish. So for those unfamiliar with pho, this video was their first impression of it, which was ultimately a misinterpretation of a much loved food.

Since the backlash, Bon Appétit has removed the online video and has apologized for offending many people. Say what you wish about Bon Appétit and Akin, but I think it’s safe to say pho and ramen are both freaking delicious. How’s that for a comparison?

Featured illustration by Spencer Hall. 

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