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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.
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.
|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.|
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.
Modern pho was created in northern Vietnam between 1900 and 1907. It is believed to have been created from the intersection of several cultures that coexisted in Vietnam at the time.
During French colonial rule, beef was easier to get, due to the demand from French colonists. Around the same time, Chinese immigrants from Yunnan and Guangdong brought rice noodles with them, and pho was born.
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.
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.
By the 1980s, ramen was known as a Japanese cultural icon, and many different varieties were being sold across the nation. Although instant ramen was a big hit in other countries, Japan still held onto their traditional ramen with fresh noodles, meat, and vegetables.
Today, ramen is one of the most popular foods in Japan. Japanese cities are covered in ramen restaurants, some of which have Michelin stars. More and more ramen restaurants are opening up in the West, as people realize it is a cheap, healthy, and tasty meal.
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.
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.
For meat, you can choose between different cuts of pork and beef. Traditionally, pho is served with beef. Often the meat in pho is cut very thinly.
Every bowl of pho is also served with a side of herbs and sprouts that can be added, and various other garnishes, such as a squeeze of lime, fresh chili, or cilantro. Fish sauce, hoisin sauce and chili oil might be added as accompaniments, depending on the customer's taste.
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.
The meat in ramen is typically fattier and cut thicker than the meat in pho, but just like with pho, you can choose from pork or beef to go in your soup.
Ramen is much more customizable than pho, and there are many options for what you can put into your ramen, including roast pork, boiled eggs, chopped green onions, seaweed, sprouts, corn, and more.
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 can be found everywhere in Vietnam, from street stalls and hole in the wall restaurants to nicer upscale joints. Pho is sold at any time of day but is traditionally eaten at breakfast by the locals.
The price of pho can vary depending on the restaurant but is typically between 20,000 and 40,000 Vietnamese Dong or US$1.00 to US$1.90 per bowl.
The options for pho are pretty standard across restaurants and are sometimes not included on the menu because it’s assumed that everyone knows them.
When you order a bowl of pho, the first thing you can choose is what type of broth you want. Typically, the options are either beef or chicken broth.
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.
You can find ramen at the many restaurants and stalls throughout Japanese cities that specialize in selling ramen. You can often recognize these places by the pictures of ramen dishes outside or by the steam from the cooking of noodles inside. In Tokyo, there is even a ramen street that has eight different ramen restaurants.
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.
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.
Similarly, you can choose the thickness of the broth and how oily your soup is. Usume means thin broth, futsu means regular, and koime means thick. Sukuname means a little oil, futsu means regular, and ome means oily.
If you just want regular ramen to start out with, you can always choose futsu for everything and then experiment with the different variations later on.
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.