Even if you have never been to Vietnam before, chances are you’ve tried the national dish, pho – Vietnamese rice noodles in clear soup, with slices of beef.
The delightful combination of spices, herbs, meat broth, and lime is loved not just in Vietnam, but all over the world.
Originating from the northern part of Vietnam, it has become popular throughout the whole country, and many variations have emerged as it has been adapted to local tastes.
- Pho originated in northern Vietnam
- It began as a commoner’s food
- Making pho is not as simple as the dish looks, for making the broth involves many ingredients
- Pho noodles of southern Vietnam are sweeter and have more garnish than northern Vietnam’s
- Although pho originated in the north, southern-style pho is internationally better-known
Ingredients and Preparation of Pho
The main ingredients of pho are flat rice noodles, broth, and thin cuts of beef. There are also variations which include beef tripe, meat balls, or chicken.
Even though from its outward appearance, pho looks like a simple meal, preparing it is not a simple task. Its broth is clear, but full of flavor due to the many ingredients that go into making it.
The broth is made by simmering beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, and spices. For chicken pho, the broth is made by simmering chicken meat and bones.
What gives pho its distinctive taste is actually its spices, which commonly include Saigon cinnamon, star anise, roasted ginger, roasted onion, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed, and cloves.
These spices are wrapped inside cheese cloth and simmered for several hours. Using the cheese bag means that the spices can be taken out easily once the dish is done. The top of the broth is skimmed off, to make it clearer. Finally, fish sauce is added.
Pho is served with various garnishes such as green onions, Thai basil, chili peppers, lime, bean sprouts, and coriander leaves. Dipping sauce that commonly accompanies pho is fish sauce, hoisin sauce, chili oil, and hot chili sauce.
History and Origin of Pho
The exact history and origin of pho is highly disputed. The modern form of the dish only emerged in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam. Before there were other similar dishes.
Traditionally, Vietnamese consume more pork and chicken. With French presence and the demand for beef, however, beef became more common and was incorporated into Vietnamese cooking.
It is said that in its beginnings, pho was popular with Chinese workers from Yunnan and Guangdong because it was similar to food from their homeland. Pho was originally sold at dawn and dusk by street vendors, carrying poles on their shoulders. Two fixed pho stands were first opened in Hanoi.
Regional Variations of Pho
There are many variations of pho. The most basic distinction is between northern-style and southern-style pho.
Though the dish originated in northern Vietnam, when in 1954 Vietnam was divided into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam, many people from the north migrated to the south, bringing the pho culture with them.
Later on, after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 which marked the end of the Vietnam War, masses of southern Vietnamese fled the country seeking refuge in other countries. This was how the southern-style pho took off to many corners of the world, most notably the USA.
The northern-style pho is characterized by more savory broth, wider noodles, and green onions. Southern-style pho is distinguished by its many garnishes and sauces including bean sprouts, Thai basil, coriander, and hoisin sauce.
||Northern Pho (phở bắc)
||Southern Pho (phở Sài Gòn)
||more savory broth
||chicken or minced beef
||various parts and forms of beef including sliced rare beef, bone marrow, tendon, fatty flank, briskets and meatballs
||green onion, less garnishes
||bean sprouts, Thai basil, coriander
||Vinegar, fish sauce, and chili sauce
||Lime, hoisin sauce, chili sauce, and fresh chilis
How to Eat Pho
You eat pho with chopsticks. While in some western cultures it is considered rude to eat soup by sipping the bowl, it is okay to sip when you’re eating pho. It is even okay to slurp, even encouraged, as this is seen as a compliment, that the dish tastes delicious.
Before adding the condiments, sip and savor the rich taste of the broth. Then if you like, you can season to taste using the condiments provided, such as fish sauce, hoisin sauce, or chili sauce.
In northern Vietnam, pho usually already has greens and herbs incorporated into the soup, while in southern Vietnam, the garnishes are usually served separately, to be added yourself.
Popular Pho Street Restaurants or Stalls
Pho 24 is a very popular pho noodle franchise you can find not only all over Vietnam, but in other countries as well, including the USA and Australia.
If you are looking for something more local, however, you can go to Pho Hoa in Ho Chi Minh City, which has been run by successive generations of the same family, and where the broth recipe remains a family secret.
Pho 2000 is another famous place you can try in Ho Chi Minh City. Bill Clinton ate his first bowl of pho during a state visit in the year 2000 and it was said he enjoyed the dish so much that he ordered a second bowl.
Pho 2000 is near Ben Thanh Market, so before or after eating, you can take the opportunity to explore the local market.
Or, if you are in Hanoi, the Old Quarter is an excellent place for pho, with many different venues. One of the most popular is Pho 10 on 10 Ly Quoc Su. Not only is the taste amazing, but they also serve very quickly and the prices are cheap.
Explore Asia with Asia Highlights
At Asia Highlights we offer tailor-made tours through Asia, where you can enjoy all highlights as well as amazing cultural experiences. To get started, send us an email.