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A “Pho”-nomenon

In the February 2013 issue of School Nutrition, author Brent T. Frei took a look at the popularity and growth of bowl foods in school nutrition operations and beyond. A dish that can be found in restaurants and school nutrition operations alike is pho. Learn more about the popular and versatile Vietnamese dish.

The classic Vietnamese dish pho may not be quite as “classic” as you might think. It likely came into popularity as late as the mid-1880s. Heavily influenced by the Chinese, who imported rice noodles and spices, and the French, who popularized the eating of red meat, the dish is well-named, as the word “pho” is often said to be derived from pot-au-feu (literally, “pot on fire”), a classical French preparation of meat and vegetables slowly cooked in water. Traditional pho begins as beef broth simmered for as long as 12 hours with charred onions and a bouquet garni à la classical French cooking.

In the mid-Seventies, as the Vietnam War sent refugees fleeing to America, they brought their recipes for pho with them. Today, hundreds of U.S. restaurants (most of them small “mom-and-pop” operations) feature pho as their core menu item. Besides traditional beef versions, typical phos in the United States are chicken, vegetarian and even seafood, although purists do not consider seafood pho to be “true” pho.

Minneapolis Public Schools, which serves a large Vietnamese population, began testing a vegetable-broth pho as a one-bowl meal at high schools in January 2013. Students have a wealth of ingredient choices with which to customize their pho dishes, including commodity diced chicken, noodles, assorted vegetables, sprouts, cilantro, lime wedges and diced jalapeño.

Thanks to Campbell’s Foodservice, which several years ago worked with celebrity Vietnamese chef and restaurateur Mai Pham of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., to develop packaged pho broths, San Diego Unified School District is testing a chicken pho through its secondary schools’ SanDi Coast Café operation. “Campbell’s Build-A-Bowl™ concept conforms to our reimbursable meals program [in that we use] their bases and build with other components,” explains Fred Espinosa, the district’s manager of production and acquisition. “We’re using their pho broth and adding ramen or glass noodles to it for the grain component, vegetables for the vegetable component and chicken for the meat/meat-alternate component.”

Beef pho from scratch was introduced at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., last year, and it’s a hit when offered to students on the meal plan, says Daniel Froelich, executive chef. “We make a really fragrant seasoned beef broth in which we actually cook beef brisket with onion, celery, garlic and Asian spices.” He removes the brisket and shreds it, clarifies the stock and serves the stock in a deep bowl with rice vermicelli and tops it with the shredded brisket. Students can garnish the dish with Thai basil, lime and hoisin sauce. “We’ve done it a few times, and it goes over very well,” Froelich notes.