Khanh Trinh carries a tray of roasted onions and ginger to a large pot filled with 25 pounds of beef bones and 20 pounds of chicken bones. He slides them into a stock that’s on a slow boil.
Next, he adds cinnamon sticks, star anise, fennel and coriander seeds, whole cloves and black peppercorns, and stirs.
As the Bellingham resident describes how he makes the broth for pho – an aromatic noodle soup that may be the most recognizable of Vietnamese cuisine – he skims away foam that floats to the top.
“In the water, what do you see right now, nice and clear,” said Trinh, a Vietnamese immigrant who has been making his version of the soup for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center since 2010.
Making the broth is an hours-long process that starts on Thursday mornings and lasts well into the afternoon. The stock is strained, refrigerated overnight and the fat skimmed from the top.
Pho, pronounced “fuh,” is served each Friday in the Bellingham hospital’s cafeteria, known as the North Tower Cafe and operated by Thomas Cuisine. Chicken breast, lightly baked tofu or thinly sliced eye of round beef top each bowl filled with rice noodles in a fragrant and fortifying broth.
People line up each week for the roughly 100 bowls that are served.
Among them one Friday was Sandi Kness, a certified medical assistant, who was tucking into a bowl of beef pho. Two friends, who join her each week, were eating theirs.
“It’s just the best pho in town,” Kness said. “The price is great.”
A bowl costs $5.99. The cafeteria is open to the community.
Friend Lori Jo Smith, a Realtor, praised the broth as “exceptionally tasty today.”
“Of course, it’s the weather. This is pho weather,” said Smith, in between bites of her beef pho on a cold, gray day.
“Any day is pho weather,” Kness replied.
Erin Swanda, a certified nurse midwife, called the end of the week “pho Friday.”
“It’s comfort food. It is for me,” Swanda said.
The soup’s popularity warms Trinh, 46.
“I’m really happy the people love the food in here,” said Trinh, who has been working in food service at the hospital since February 1994. “I care about my customers.”
A people’s history in a bowl
Where did pho come from, and who made the first bowl?
That’s up for debate, but pho’s history, like that of Trinh and his family, is a story of war and adaptation.
It’s a confluence of Chinese, Vietnamese and French influences. China, which is on Vietnam’s northern border, ruled the country for a thousand years and the French were a colonial power in the country for nearly 70 years, until 1954.
The soup likely was created as a means of doing something with the bones of cows, which the French killed to feed their hunger for beef at a time when the Vietnamese mainly ate pork and chicken and saw cows as work animals and not food, according to Nguyen.
Another theory is that pho actually has its roots in an ancient Chinese soup with beef in it, Mai Pham wrote in her “Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table” cookbook.
At any rate, pho was a simple dish in the north. It was saltier and had no garnish, Nguyen said during a segment on a KUOW podcast called “Second Wave.”
That simplicity changed when the soup made its way to South Vietnam – brought there by northerners fleeing the communists when the country was partitioned in 1954, Pham wrote.
That’s when the soup became sweeter, according to Nguyen, and it’s in the south where people garnished pho with lime, Thai basil, bean sprouts, hot sauce and other add-ons.
It’s this version of the soup – described as Vietnam’s national dish – that is widespread in the United States, where the South Vietnamese fled to when the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam war and Saigon fell to the communist north on April 30, 1975.
Many of them came to Washington state, after then Gov. Dan Evans welcomed the refugees.
But Trinh and his family were not among that wave of refugees.
They wouldn’t, and couldn’t, leave for nearly two decades.
Life after war
On a recent Friday night at his home in Bellingham – with a big pot of pho broth on his own stove-top – Trinh talked about the life he has now.
He is among nearly 70,000 Vietnamese living in Washington state.
Trinh’s wife Thao Dinh, 40, sits on a couch nearby with their two children, Kathy, a 15-year-old sophomore at Squalicum High School, and Trina, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Shuksan Middle School.
It’s a life he said he couldn’t have imagined growing up in South Vietnam, where he was deemed to be the son of “a dog of America.”
That’s because Trinh’s father had been a captain in the South Vietnamese army, which aligned with the U.S. against the North Vietnamese. After the war, his father spent more than five years imprisoned in the north.
That time was hard, Trinh said. They were poor, eking out a living on a small family farm in Mo Cay in the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam. He was hungry. He was beaten up by other boys, a lot.
“When you lived in a poor country after the war, it’s horrible,” Trinh said. “I know it because we were right there. It was a nightmare.”
He didn’t see his father again until he was nearly 10 years old. The family thought he was dead, Trinh said.
At 17, Trinh tried to escape on a fishing boat but was captured.
Eventually, the government asked them if they wanted to leave. They hesitated at first, afraid it was a trap. But they were allowed to leave, and in 1991, Trinh came to Bellingham with his three brothers, his mom and his dad. His uncle already lived here and had been since 1975, he said.
The transition was tough.
“I don’t know nothing, the culture, the English, cannot write, cannot read,” Trinh recalled.
Over the years, he learned English and became a naturalized citizen.
He got a job at Trident Seafoods and then Bornstein seafoods. In 1994, he started working in the kitchen at what was then St. Joseph hospital, a familiar name to long-time residents. He was a dishwasher for six or seven years, before starting to cook after getting some training.
Trinh convinced the kitchen’s previous management to make pho, but he didn’t like the taste of the one made from a recipe he was given. “That’s not pho,” he said at the time.
So, he made a proposal.
“How about I bring my recipe here, you try one time,” said Trinh, who also learned to cook from his grandfather and his mother.
It’s been popular since. People ask him for the recipe now. He gives it.
“Why not? I share with them.”
Still hungry for knowledge of pho and Vietnamese cuisine? Try these resources:
▪ “Vietnamese Home Cooking,” by Charles Phan, chef-owner of The Slanted Door in San Francisco and a James Beard award winner. He’s also featured in a podcast from “The Splendid Table” at splendidtable.org/story/the-secret-to-real-pho-is-the-stock.
▪ “Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table,” by Mai Pham.