When hungry travelers touch down in Seattle, they usually request one thing: seafood. But to me, there's another dish that is quintessential Seattle, a dish that locals love so much, they probably eat it far more often than local seafood. And that dish is pho.
DJ Sabzi, from the Seattle hip hop group Blue Scholars, has just launched a new side project featuring the beloved Vietnamese noodle soup. Just like the rest of us, Sabzi has spent many cold, rainy days slurping up the star anise tinged beef broth and noodles, tweaked with a squeeze of lime, a handful of bean sprouts and a sprinkling of fresh basil and mint. This lead to some ideas in art and music.
"We were talking about doing a poster, because I had seen something similar where Dude had laid out all of the contents of his pockets. There was, like, a gun, some bullets, things that were laid out. I was like, "Ay! That would look tight if you applied the concept to pho, the ingredients."
So he enlisted some artist friends to create two pho posters which expanded into stickers, buttons and chopsticks. He started a Kickstarter campaign to get them made and contributors, including myself, get the first batch of merchandise in January. Then he made a rap video featuring his favorite Seattle pho joints. His favorite spot, which is also Tom Douglas' favorite, is Pho Bac. The flagship restaurant is in the shape of a rickety looking boat on the cusp of the International District and the Rainier Valley.
"It's the best one in town and it's the first one that came out in Seattle. It came out in 1982. Very clean food, very good ingredients. It's one of my favorite spots, if not my favorite spot."
Sabzi says pho is far more than just soup. It represents identity and culture.
"There's myself and there's are a few of my friends, kind of from the south Seattle area. Over the years we have talked about how our cultural identity has really sort of morphed, it's evolved in a weird way, to the point that we look at something like pho as our indigenous food. None of us in this group... Actually, no, one of us is Vietnamese. Only one. But the others are not. It's just funny that I can be traveling, I'll be on the east coast somewhere, where it's harder to find pho as easy as you can find it here. I'll see it and I'll be like, 'Ahh...home.'"
Sabzi was raised in an Iranian household.
"My mother is white from White Center. But I grew up mainly with my father's family. My mom speaks Farsi, cooks Persian food, all that stuff."
But pho still manages to feel like his own.
Now on to a pet peeve of mine. Pho is pronounced 'fuh' but a lot of people mispronounce it as 'foe.' I wondered if the mispronunciation gets Sabzi as irked as I get.
"I know people that say 'foe'. The truth is, I just get really embarrassed and I try not to get mad because I know somewhere else in my life I'm doing something similar. I've probably said, like, eight ignorant things already in this radio show. I try to be real nice and be like, 'You know, it's not called that.' But I had an opportunity to write a whole rap song about this and it says, 'doesn't rhyme with YO.' Now that it's been said, and it's out there in the universe, I don't have to say it again."
Sabzi's kickstarter campaign, Pho 99, ends December 4th. Click here for a link to contribute, and get some pho merchandise of your own, and to see his rap video.
The Blue Scholars are performing this Friday and Saturday, December 30th and December 1st, at the Showbox in downtown Seattle. Click here to get tickets.