No matter what time day or night, a steaming bowl of pho noodle soup is never hard to find in Vietnam. Just as pad thai in Thailand, pho is Vietnam's unofficial national dish exported with pride all over the world.
Pho consists of flat rice noodles in a light, meat-based broth. The dish is usually accompanied by basil, lime, chili, and other extras on the side so that eaters can season the soup to their own taste. The balanced tastes of sweet, salty, spicy, and citrus are highly contagious; pho usually becomes an instant favorite for anyone visiting Vietnam!
Pronounced something like "fuuuh" with a drawn-out vowel, pho is difficult for Westerners to say correctly because of the tone. Luckily, pho is easier to eat than to pronounce. Traditionally, pho noodle soup was eaten by Vietnamese people for breakfast and sometimes lunch, however both locals and foreigners alike can be found hunched over steaming bowls of pho at street carts throughout the night.
Some squeamish eaters may balk at authentic pho which is made from beef bones, tendons, tripe (stomach), fat, and sometimes ox tail. Bones and lesser-quality cuts of meat are simmered for hours to produce the soup broth. With pho's popularity, many chain restaurants catering to tourists now omit ingredients that may frighten business away. Broth is commonly made from beef, pork, or chicken bones; only lean pieces of meat are added.
Seasonings in Pho
The broth used in pho preparation is thin and light, with a slight flavor provided by cilantro, onion, ginger, and sometimes cinnamon. The key to enjoying a tasty bowl of pho is to toss in the ingredients given to customers on the side. Practices vary between eateries, but most include bean sprouts, basil leaves, hot peppers, green onions, and a lime wedge on the side.
See this pho recipe for making your own Vietnamese noodle soup at home.
The History of Pho Noodle Soup
Despite its popularity, opinions differ about the origins of pho soup. Culinary experts generally agreed that the rice noodles were brought by Cantonese immigrants from Guandong province in Southern China. Some say the soup itself was influenced by the French during their colonization of Vietnam, however locals dispute this theory. The Vietnamese claim that pho originated in the Nam Dinh province just southwest of Hanoi and then spread to other parts of the country.
Refugees fleeing Vietnam in the 1970s carried pho to the West where it grew quickly in popularity. Even President Clinton enjoyed a bowl of pho during his historic visit to Vietnam at Pho 2000 - a small restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.
Variations of Pho
Ingredients and styles of pho noodle soup vary by region throughout Vietnam. Ga typically means that the dish contains chicken; bo means the dish is prepared with beef.
Here are a few popular variants of Vietnamese pho soup:
- Pho ga: chicken noodle soup
- Pho bo: beef pho
- Pho cay: spicy beef noodle soup
- Pho bo vien: pho with beef meatballs
- Pho tai: noodle soup with thin slices of rare beef fillet
- Pho hai san: pho noodle soup with added seafood
- Pho sach bo: traditional-style pho with added beef tripe
The ultimate pho dish - not for the faint of heart - is known as "specialty pho" or pho dac biet and contains every type of meat available in the restaurant including chicken hearts, liver, beef tripe, and tendons.