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The Difference Between Pho and Ramen

From an outsider’s perspective, pho and ramen may seem very similar and it's easy to see why. Both pho and ramen are famous soup dishes coming from Asia, having a meat broth with noodles and vegetables, and having had a popularity boom in the West in recent years.

Once you try them, however, you'll realize that the two dishes aren't the same at all. In this article, we’ll break down all of the differences between pho and ramen, including the history, ingredients, and popularity, as well as how to find each dish and how to order them the way you want.

Quick Facts

  • Pho is pronounced “fuh” and is a Vietnamese noodle soup dish and ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish. These dishes are different in many ways.
  • Pho was created in northern Vietnam when the Chinese immigrants brought in rice noodles and the French colonists brought beef.
  • Ramen was invented after Chinese immigrants brought lamian (Chinese wheat noodles) to Japan. Over the years it changed to be the iconic Japanese food it is today.
  • Both pho and ramen have experienced a boom in the West and are growing in popularity.
  • The main differences between pho and ramen are in the ingredients. Pho comes with either chicken or beef broth and your choice of beef cut. Ramen comes with three regional broths and many different options for toppings.
  • Pho is made with rice noodles and ramen is made with wheat noodles.
  • Pho is a very light and fresh dish whereas ramen is more filling and hearty.
  • Both pho and ramen can be easily found in their respective countries, as they are popular amongst locals, and both are relatively cheap.
  • When ordering pho, you can choose which cuts of meat you want, as well as which herbs and spices to add.
  • When ordering ramen, you can choose from a variety of different broths; then you can choose the firmness of the noodle, the thickness of the broth, and the amount of oil.

Differences between Pho and Ramen

Pho (Phở) is a Vietnamese dish (pronounced "fuh"), consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat. It is a very popular street food in Vietnam and is also served in most Vietnamese restaurants.

Ramen (ラーメン) is a Japanese dish consisting of broth, wheat noodles, meat, and sometimes soy sauce or miso. Forget the instant ramen you know, because ramen in Japan is completely different, made with fresh noodles and having hundreds of varieties.

A bowl of pho
Plain ramen with the original toppings green onion and pork
 
  Pho Ramen
Broth Either beef or chicken broth with onion, ginger, coriander seed, fennel seed and cloves. Very light and fresh. Made from pork bones, chicken bones, anchovies, dried bonito, or vegetables. Flavor tends to be a lot stronger
Noodles Rice noodles made from rice flour and water. Wheat flour including a special ingredient called kansui.
Toppings Cuts of pork, or beef, or chicken, fresh herbs and vegetables. Sliced pieces of pork, boiled egg, seaweed, scallion.
Flavors Lime, fish sauce, chili sauce or fresh chili. Soy sauce, miso, salt.

1. Origins and Development of Pho and Ramen

Pho and ramen developed separately and were heavily influenced by the country and culture in which they were created. To understand a little more about the roots and spread of each dish, let's take a look at the history and culture behind them.

Pho

Originally, the dish was meant to feed poorer Chinese and Vietnamese farmers, sold at dawn and dusk by roaming vendors on the streets, who carried a pole from which hung two wooden cabinets, one housing a cauldron (used over a wood fire), the other storing noodles, spices and cookware.

Eventually, pho spread throughout the country and became the Vietnamese staple we know today.

Pho mostly stayed inside Vietnam, until the Vietnam War caused Vietnamese refugees to flee to many countries, spreading their cultural and culinary influence throughout the world. Restaurants specializing in pho appeared all over the West, and in the 1980s, the first pho restaurants opened in the United States.

Pho continues to be just as popular in Vietnam as it always has been and some locals eat it every day for breakfast. In the U.S. the popularity of pho is growing, and the dish can be found in every major city and on many college campuses.

Ramen

When and how ramen was invented isn't very clear, but most people think that just like pho, ramen came from the influence of Chinese immigrants, many of whom operated noodle stalls throughout Japanese cities, selling ramen and dumplings to workers. The name ‘ramen’ is even said to have come from the Chinese noodle dish lamian (拉面).

In the late 1950s, everything about ramen changed when Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen, which allowed anyone to make simple ramen by just adding hot water. Instant ramen immediately caught on and started spreading around the globe.

2. Ingredients and Preparation of Pho and Ramen

Now on to what makes pho and ramen so different – the taste and ingredients that create these incredible dishes. Generally, pho has fewer ingredients than ramen and pho is known as being lighter and fresher, while ramen is packed with flavor and has a thicker and heavier broth.

Pho

The first step in making a good pho is the broth. Typically, pho is made with either beef or chicken broth, although beef is much more common, along with charred onion, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed and clove. The broth in pho is light and fresh.

The main ingredient in pho is rice noodles, which are made from rice flour and water. They are often translucent and very light.

Ramen

As mentioned previously, the broth in ramen is usually thicker than the broth in pho and the flavor tends to be a lot stronger. Ramen soup is made from either chicken or pork, combined with a variety of ingredients such as pork bones, kelp, dried sardines and onions.

For the added flavor, just simply add soy sauce, miso or salt to the soup base. Overall there are three main types of ramen broth, including shoyu which is soy-sauce based, shio which is salt based, and miso which is flavored with soybean paste and mostly served in northern Japan.

Ramen noodles are made from wheat flour, which makes them feel heartier and more filling than the rice noodles in pho. Ramen noodles also include a special ingredient called kansui, a type of alkaline mineral water, which helps the noodles maintain a firm texture even after being in the broth for a long time. The noodles come in various shapes and lengths: thick, thin, wavy and straight.

3. Placing Your Order of Pho and Ramen

Now that we've talked about everything that goes into the creation of pho and ramen, let's talk about how you can get each of these amazing dishes, from where you can buy them, to the price, to the details of how to order exactly what you want.

Pho

Options

The next option is what kind of meat you would like in your soup. The kinds that are typically liked by Westerners include sliced round steak (tai), brisket (chin), and meatballs (bo vien). If you are more adventurous, you can try some other cuts, such as flank (nam), fatty brisket (gau), tendon (gan), and tripe (sach).

When you receive your bowl of pho, you will also get a plate of vegetables from which you can add anything you like. There will also be a tray of seasonings and sauces that you can use to spice it up. Most restaurants will have black pepper, chilis, chili sauce, black bean sauce, and some lime.

Sometimes, finding the perfect bowl of pho for you takes some experimentation, but it's always fun to try the different variations.

Ramen

There are many famous ramen shops in Japan which draw in lots of tourists and locals alike. These shops often have long lines every day. The wait to get inside some restaurants can be two hours long.

A bowl of ramen typically costs anywhere from 500 to1000 yen or US$4.50 to US$9.00. The more ingredients included in your bowl of ramen the more it will cost. In many ramen stalls in Japan, you will need to pay upfront through a ticketing machine, so there won't be any surprises about the price after you have already eaten.

Options
Once you reach the ramen stall, there are many different options for how you can order your noodles. When ordering "ramen", you will get the plain ramen with the original toppings: green onion, mushroom, and pork.

There are also many other options. For example, you can order aji-tama ramen which also includes a boiled egg, cha-shu-men which comes with an extra pork slice, kikurage-ramen which comes with many mushrooms, or negi-ramen which adds extra green onion.

When you order ramen, you can also choose the firmness of your noodles. If you want regular, you can ask for futsu, if you want firm, you can ask for katame, and if you want your noodles tender, you can ask for yawarakame.

4. Popular Pho and Ramen Dishes

Pho and Ramen have several regional variants, particularly divided by the northern version and southern version. The main regional differences lie in the soup’s broth, toppings, and sauces.

Pho

Pho in Vietnam comes in two main forms. The northern pho is known for having a more savory broth and balances its taste through the use of garnishes including green onions, coriander, garlic, and chill sauce. The southern pho is more herbal and light and is served with more fresh garnishes like lime, bean sprouts, and fresh chill.

Vietnamese fresh rice noodle soup Pho with many garnishes
 

Phở Hà Nội, or phở bắc, is the Hanoi style of pho which is quite simple and is considered to be the original pho. This pho emphasizes a tasty and clear broth with wider noodles and few extra garnishes. Only green onions are added to this style of pho. Vinegar, fish sauce, and chill sauce are the most common condiments.

Phở Sài Gòn, or phở nam, is the Saigon style of pho. This pho is characterized by a sweeter broth with thinner noodles and the addition of many garnishes such as basil, bean sprouts, and coriander. The condiments added are more commonly hoisin sauce and chili sauce. Lime and fresh chilis are also often used to add flavor.

There are also many other types of pho that are distinguished by their broth and meat. The common types of pho are pho heo (pork), pho bo (beef), pho ga (chicken), and pho ca (fish).

Ramen

Ramen in Japan comes in two main forms including the domestic version and the Chinese version. Ramen is typically categorized by its soup base and main meat ingredient.

ramen Ramen with rich toppings
 

Shio ramen has a salty broth and is usually made with chicken bones and seafood products. Shio broth can be easily identified by its transparent yellow color and pleasant salty flavor. This is considered to be one of the oldest ramen broths.

The most common kind of ramen is Shoyu ramen, also known as soy sauce ramen. As you’ve probably guessed, the broth of this ramen has a soy sauce base with a deep and rich flavor. Springy and curly noodles are often added to Shoyu ramen and then topped with a slice of pork, some scallions, green onions, fish cakes, and a soft-boiled egg.

Tonkotsu ramen is known for its pork bone broth which is boiled for a specific amount of time to bring out the flavor and aroma. Additional ingredients like onion, garlic, ginger, and pig’s feet help to make the broth cloudy and rich. This type of ramen includes noodles that are slightly hard in the center and is served with braised pork belly, kombu, spring onions, sesame seeds, and chili bean paste.

Although there are many regional variations of ramen, some of the best include Sapporo ramen made with a miso-based broth and soki-soba in Okinawa featuring a delicious pork spare rib as the topping.

Japan is the Perfect Place for a Food Tour

Local and seasonal produce is highly valued in Japan and depending on when you visit, you’ll be able to taste some of the freshest ingredients in everything you eat.

Besides using the best ingredients, Japanese cuisine is incredible because the food cultures of many regions were once in competition with each other for hundreds of years. So when you travel between regions, you’ll notice a distinct change in cuisine and ingredients.

The best way to discover the incredible culinary world of Japan is to take a food tour with an experienced guide who can lead you to the local joints and order the most famous foods.

In Tokyo, visit Yurakucho to relax with a beer and a grilled chicken skewer. Then, head to Tsukishima to walk around the streets filled with retro restaurants and try monjayaki, a tasty snack made from a flour and vegetable batter.

Although Tokyo is a great food destination, food travelers can’t miss Osaka which is not only a vibrant city but is especially well-known for its culinary magic. Visit the Dotonbori district for a vast array of colorful eateries and great bars. Here, you’ll have the chance to sample a variety of local foods including takoyaki (octopus dumpling), kushikatsu (skewered meats and vegetables), and of course ramen!

Taking a cooking class is also a great way to gain an understanding of the local cuisine. One of our favorite cooking classes involves visiting a typical Japanese home to learn how to make different kinds of sushi. This class includes making maki sushi (rolled sushi), nigiri sushi (rice topped with a slice of raw fish), and gunkan maki (sushi rice wrapped with a strip of seaweed).

sushi Taking a cooking class
 

If you aren’t a sushi-lover then take a class on the Japanese art of Bento. Bentos are beautiful boxed meals that are very typically Japanese. You can also participate in a soba lesson, tempura lesson, sake tasting, and market visit.

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Explore Asian flavors with Asia Highlights

Now that you know all about ramen and pho, it’s time to get out there and taste it for yourself! At Asia Highlights we offer tours of both, Vietnam and Japan, where you can have amazing cultural experiences as well as culinary ones. To get started, send us an email.

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