Pho: A Complete Guide to the Vietnamese Noodle Soup
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Phở or pho (pronounced variously as , , , or ; ) is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called , a few herbs, and meat. It is primarily served with either beef or chicken.
Pho is a popular street food in Vietnam and the specialty of a number of restaurant chains around the world. Southern Vietnamese eat it for breakfast and occasionally lunch, whereas northerners eat it at any time of day.
Pho originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam. War refugees later popularized it in the rest of Vietnam and the world.
Because pho’s origins are poorly documented, there is significant disagreement over the cultural influences that led to its development in Vietnam, as well as the etymology of the word itself.
The Hanoi and Saigon styles of pho differ by noodle width, sweetness of broth, and choice of herbs. A related beef noodle soup, bún bò Huế, is associated with Huế in central Vietnam.
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In this post we'll cover:
- 1 The Origin Story and Flavor Profile of Vietnam’s National Comforting Dish: Pho
- 2 The Fascinating History of Pho
- 3 Creating the Perfect Bowl of Pho: Ingredients and Preparation
- 4 The Many Styles of Pho
- 5 Pho Restaurants That Will Satisfy Your Cravings
- 6 Pho vs Ramen: The Ultimate Guide
- 7 Conclusion
The Origin Story and Flavor Profile of Vietnam’s National Comforting Dish: Pho
Pho originates from Vietnam, with the first known pho restaurant opening in Hanoi in the early 20th century. It is believed to have originated in the Nam Dinh province in northern Vietnam, where it was served as a street food dish. The dish gained popularity in the southern part of the country after refugees from the north introduced it to other cultures. Today, pho is ubiquitous in Vietnam and is enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.
The Ingredients and Preparation of Pho
Pho is a type of Vietnamese soup consisting of a flavorful broth, rice noodles, and thinly sliced beef or other meat. The broth is made by simmering beef bones, herbs, and spices for several hours to create a rich, aromatic flavor. The noodles are made from wheat or rice and are usually fresh, adding a chewy texture to the dish. The beef is sliced thinly and cooked in the broth just before serving.
The Toppings and Flavor Profile of Pho
Pho is traditionally served with bean sprouts, herbs, and lime wedges on the side, allowing people to add their desired toppings to the dish. The broth is typically spicy and has a bright, zesty flavor profile thanks to the addition of tart lime juice. The layer of toppings adds a fresh and crunchy element to the bowl, making it an enjoyable and satisfying meal.
The Importance of Quality in Pho
The quality of the ingredients used in pho is an important element in creating a delicious bowl of the dish. Fresh herbs and high-quality meat are essential for creating the traditional flavor profile of pho. Many restaurants take pride in their pho recipe and spend hours perfecting the broth and preparing the toppings.
Getting Pho in Restaurants
Pho is a popular dish in Vietnamese restaurants around the world. When ordering pho, it’s important to note that the dish technically refers to the singular bowl of soup, not the dish as a whole. Here are some common things to keep in mind when getting pho in a restaurant:
- Choose a restaurant that specializes in pho for the best quality
- Ask for recommendations on the best type of pho to try
- Don’t be afraid to add additional toppings or spices to customize the dish to your liking
The Fascinating History of Pho
The earliest forms of pho were simple dishes that were sold by street vendors who carried them on poles made of wood. The broth was typically produced by boiling beef bones and water, and it was seasoned with onion, ginger, and other spices. The meat used in the dish was usually a rare cut of beef that was grilled or boiled and sliced thinly. The dish was often served with pickled vegetables, and it was eaten with chopsticks.
Pho’s Rise in Popularity
Pho became more popular in Vietnam during the mid-20th century, and it began to appear on the menus of restaurants in the country’s larger cities. The dish was typically served in a bowl with a variety of additional ingredients, including bean sprouts, basil, lime, and chili sauce. The popularity of pho continued to spread, and it eventually became one of the most commonly sold dishes in Vietnam.
Pho Goes Global
Starting in the 1970s, Vietnamese refugees began to spread throughout the world, and they brought their cuisine with them. Pho quickly became a popular dish in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, Canada, and other countries. Today, pho is commonly found in small towns and big cities alike, and it is often described as one of the most popular Vietnamese dishes.
Key Differences in Pho Styles
There are a number of different styles of pho, and the key differences between them are the cuts of meat used and the types of spices and sauces that are added to the broth. Some of the most common styles of pho include:
- Pho Bo: This is the standard beef version of pho, and it typically uses cuts of beef like brisket, flank, or sirloin.
- Pho Ga: This is a chicken version of pho that uses chicken broth and shredded chicken meat.
- Pho Chay: This is a vegetarian version of pho that uses tofu and vegetables instead of meat.
Preparing and Serving Pho
Pho is typically prepared by boiling beef bones and water for several hours to produce a rich broth. The broth is then seasoned with onion, ginger, and other spices, and it is served in a bowl with fresh rice noodles and slices of beef or chicken. The dish is typically served with a variety of additional ingredients, including bean sprouts, basil, lime, and chili sauce. Pho is often described as a complex dish that requires a heavy investment of time and effort to prepare properly.
Famous Pho Restaurants
There are a number of famous pho restaurants in Vietnam and around the world. Some of the most popular include:
- Pho 24: This is a chain of pho restaurants that was founded in Vietnam in 2003. The chain has since expanded to more than 60 locations in 12 countries.
- Pho Hoa: This is another chain of pho restaurants that was founded in Vietnam in 1968. The chain now has more than 70 locations in the United States and Canada.
- Pho Bat Dan: This is a famous pho restaurant in Hanoi that is known for its long lines and delicious broth.
Pho continues to be a popular dish in Vietnam and around the world. The dish has evolved over time, and there are now a wide variety of different styles and preparations of pho available. Despite its lack of a standard recipe, pho is commonly described as having a complex and satisfying flavor that is both spicy and savory. Whether you are a seasoned pho enthusiast or a newcomer to the dish, there is sure to be a pho restaurant near you that can guide you through the many types and long history of this beloved dish.
The Significance of Pho in Vietnamese Culture
Pho is considered to be one of the most important and beloved foods in Vietnamese culture. It is commonly eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and is often served at special occasions such as weddings and funerals.
The Debate Over the Origin of Pho
While scholars generally agree that pho originated in northern Vietnam, there is some debate over who invented the dish. Some historians believe that it was created by a man named Jean Du Gouin, a Frenchman who lived in Vietnam during the colonial period. Others believe that it was invented by a Vietnamese chef named Lục Ngọc Minh, who lived near the city of Yuhk.
Creating the Perfect Bowl of Pho: Ingredients and Preparation
The broth is the main component of pho, and it’s what sets it apart from other noodle soups. The broth is made by simmering beef bones, onions, ginger, and spices for hours. Some recipes also include chicken or pork bones. Here’s how to prepare the broth:
- Start by roasting the beef bones in the oven until they’re browned.
- In a large pot, add the bones, sliced onion, ginger, and spices (cinnamon, coriander, and cracked black pepper).
- Cover with water and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and let it simmer for at least 6 hours.
- Skim off any foam or impurities that rise to the surface.
- Add salt and fish sauce to taste.
The Meat: Thinly Sliced and Seasoned
The meat in pho is typically thinly sliced beef, either flank steak or round steak. Some recipes also include pork or chicken. Here’s how to prepare the meat:
- Freeze the meat for about 15 minutes to make it easier to slice thinly.
- Season the meat with soy sauce, garlic, and a pinch of sugar.
- Cook the meat in the simmering broth for a few minutes until it’s cooked to your desired level of doneness.
The Noodles: Cooked to Perfection
The noodles used in pho are made from rice flour and are flat and thin. Here’s how to prepare the noodles:
- Cook the noodles according to the package instructions.
- Rinse the noodles under cold water to stop the cooking process.
- Divide the noodles into bowls.
The Garnishes: Fresh and Flavorful
Pho is typically served with a variety of garnishes, which allow you to customize the dish to your liking. Here are some common garnishes:
- Bean sprouts
- Fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, and mint)
- Sliced chili peppers
- Lime wedges
- Hoisin sauce
- Sriracha sauce
Putting it All Together: Assembling the Perfect Bowl of Pho
Now that you have all the components of pho prepared, it’s time to assemble the dish:
- Place the cooked noodles in a bowl.
- Add the cooked meat on top of the noodles.
- Ladle the hot broth over the meat and noodles.
- Add the garnishes of your choice.
Remember, the key to making a great bowl of pho is to take your time with the broth and to use fresh, high-quality ingredients. And if you’re vegetarian, you can substitute the meat with tofu or simply skip it altogether. Pho is a versatile dish that can be customized to your liking, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different ingredients and garnishes.
The Many Styles of Pho
Northern-style pho is the most traditional version of this Vietnamese soup. It uses a lighter broth made from chicken or beef bones, and the noodles are typically wider and flatter than in other styles. The meat is usually thinly sliced beef, and the bowl is garnished with green onions, cilantro, and pickled onions. Additional garnishes include lime wedges, bean sprouts, and chili sauce. Northern-style pho is generally less sweet and spicy than other styles, and the broth is often served with a side of hoisin sauce and chili paste.
Beef pho is the most popular type of pho in the United States. It uses thinly sliced beef and a complex beef stock made from beef bones, oxtail, and other cuts of meat. The noodles are typically thin and delicate, and the bowl is garnished with green onions, cilantro, and bean sprouts. Additional garnishes include lime wedges, chili sauce, and hoisin sauce.
Chicken pho is a lighter version of the soup, made with a chicken stock instead of beef. The meat is usually shredded chicken, and the bowl is garnished with green onions, cilantro, and bean sprouts. Additional garnishes include lime wedges, chili sauce, and soy sauce.
Dry pho is a version of the soup that is served with the broth on the side, rather than in the bowl. The noodles are usually thicker and chewier than in other styles, and the meat is often grilled or marinated. Dry pho is typically garnished with green onions, cilantro, and pickled vegetables, and the broth is served with hoisin sauce and chili paste.
Mixed pho is a style that combines different types of meat and vegetables in the soup. It can include beef, pork, chicken, or fish, as well as a variety of vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, and bok choy. Mixed pho is typically served with a sweet and spicy sauce, and the broth is often topped with a mix of green onions, cilantro, and pickled vegetables.
In addition to the various styles of pho, many Vietnamese restaurants also offer additional dishes that complement the soup. These can include grilled meats, rice dishes, and a variety of appetizers such as spring rolls and dumplings. Popular garnishes for these dishes include hoisin sauce, chili paste, and lime wedges.
Overall, the majority of pho available in restaurants will be the traditional beef or chicken version, but the style and ingredients can change depending on the region and the restaurant. The essentials of pho, such as the noodles, broth, and garnishes, remain the same, but the additional ingredients and flavors can vary widely.
Pho Restaurants That Will Satisfy Your Cravings
Located in Colorado Springs, Phat Pho is known for its modern take on pho. The restaurant offers a range of dishes, including vegetarian options, and specializes in grilled meats. The broth is made fresh daily, and the vermicelli noodles are presented in a colorful bowl. Phat Pho also serves durian ice cream, a real treat for fans of the fruit. Visit their website to see their extensive menu.
This strip mall eatery in Asiatown, Houston, offers a lot of variety on its menu. Bellaire Blvd is known for its pho broths, which are made with quality ingredients. The restaurant also serves congee, a perfect breakfast option, and has an extensive list of signature dishes. Their signature dish, Gà Đakao Đặc Biệt, is a must-try for anyone visiting the area.
Located in the center of the city, Pho Saigon is a popular spot for pho lovers. The restaurant offers a range of dishes, including vegetarian options, and serves its pho with a side of fresh herbs and sauce. Pho Saigon is also known for its late-night offerings, making it the perfect spot for an evening craving. Their herbal noodle soup is a must-try for anyone looking for a unique flavor.
Pho 79 is a well-known pho spot in Garden Grove, CA. The restaurant specializes in pho and offers a range of meats to choose from. The broth is made fresh daily and is presented in a large bowl. Pho 79 also offers grilled meats and vermicelli noodles. The restaurant is open late on Fridays, making it the perfect spot for a late-night craving.
Located in the hills of San Jose, CA, Pho House is a fast-casual restaurant that specializes in pho. The restaurant offers a range of dishes, including vegetarian options, and serves its pho with fresh herbs and sauce. Pho House also offers a variety of grilled meats and vermicelli noodles. The restaurant is known for its fast service and quality food.
Pho Duy is a family-owned restaurant in Westminster, CO. The restaurant is known for its real pho broth and offers a range of meats to choose from. Pho Duy also specializes in grilled meats and vermicelli noodles. The restaurant is located in a strip mall and has a lot of fans in the area. Their pho is a perfect comfort food for anyone looking for a warm bowl of soup.
Pho 888 is a popular pho spot in Las Vegas, NV. The restaurant offers a range of dishes, including vegetarian options, and serves its pho with fresh herbs and sauce. Pho 888 also offers a variety of grilled meats and vermicelli noodles. The restaurant is known for its quality food and fast service. Their pho is a perfect meal for anyone looking for a quick and satisfying bowl of soup.
Pho 54 is a popular pho spot in San Jose, CA. The restaurant offers a range of dishes, including vegetarian options, and serves its pho with fresh herbs and sauce. Pho 54 also offers a variety of grilled meats and vermicelli noodles. The restaurant is known for its quality food and friendly service. Their pho is a perfect meal for anyone looking for a satisfying bowl of soup.
Pho Bac is a popular pho spot in Seattle, WA. The restaurant specializes in pho and offers a range of dishes, including vegetarian options. Pho Bac is known for its quality food and friendly service. The restaurant also offers a variety of grilled meats and vermicelli noodles. Their pho is a perfect meal for anyone looking for a satisfying bowl of soup.
Pho Danh is a popular pho spot in Houston, TX. The restaurant offers a range of dishes, including vegetarian options, and serves its pho with fresh herbs and sauce. Pho Danh also offers a variety of grilled meats and vermicelli noodles. The restaurant is known for its quality food and friendly service. Their pho is a perfect meal for anyone looking for a satisfying bowl of soup.
Pho King is a popular pho spot in Las Vegas, NV. The restaurant offers a range of dishes, including vegetarian options, and serves its pho with fresh herbs and sauce
Pho vs Ramen: The Ultimate Guide
Pho and ramen (differences explained further here) are two of the most popular noodle dishes in the world, but they differ greatly in their origins and preparation. Pho originated in Vietnam and is typically made with a beef broth that is simmered for hours with ingredients like star anise, cinnamon, and ginger. Ramen, on the other hand, began in Japan and is commonly made with a pork or chicken broth that is boiled with soy sauce and other seasonings.
Ingredients and Types
The ingredients used in pho and ramen also differ. Pho commonly includes rice noodles, sliced beef, and fresh herbs like basil and cilantro. Ramen, on the other hand, typically includes wheat noodles, sliced pork, and a variety of toppings like boiled egg, sliced wood ear mushrooms, and pickled bamboo shoots.
Broth and Sauce
The broth and sauce used in pho and ramen also differ. Pho broth is typically clear and light, while ramen broth is rich and complex. Ramen also commonly includes a sauce called tare, which is a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, and sake that is added to the broth to create a deeper flavor.
Styles and Garnishes
Pho and ramen also have different styles and garnishes. Pho is commonly served with a plate of fresh herbs and lime wedges on the side, while ramen is typically topped with sliced green onions, nori (dried seaweed), and a sheet of sweet, firm tofu.
One common misconception is that pho and ramen are interchangeable, but this is not true. While both dishes are noodle soups, they differ greatly in their ingredients, preparation, and flavor.
So there you have it- everything you need to know about Vietnamese pho. It’s a delicious and comforting dish that’s perfect for lunch or dinner.
It’s a great way to enjoy a variety of ingredients, and you can customize it to your liking. So go ahead and give it a try!
Check out our new cookbook
Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.
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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.