What is pho?
Pho (phở, pronounced ‘fuh’, with a slight question mark at the end, as if you didn’t quite get it), is a fragrant broth with flat rice noodles, slices of beef and pieces of spring onion. It’s the most famous dish in Vietnamese cuisine.
Pho was first prepared by street vendors in early twentieth century Hanoi. The Vietnamese were not originally beef-eaters, the French brought it to the country during their occupation ending in 1954. Beef leftover ended up in xao trau, then a popular noodle soup. Chinese guest workers gave it their twist, adding flat rice noodles, and so pho was born.
Since then, the dish has become the most popular Vietnamese meal both locally and internationally. In Vietnam, pho is also called ‘food for all seasons’ because you can order it all year round, from early in the morning until late in the evening.
Did you know?
In Vietnamese, the word pho refers both to the dish, noodle soup with beef and rice noodles, and to the noodles themselves, which are called banh pho. This double meaning shows how important the noodles are in this soup.
How to make pho?
There are two types of pho: a classic northern (pho bac) and a southern (pho nam). The classic pho consists of flat rice noodles in a fragrant broth with slices of beef and pieces of spring onion. The southern variant is sweeter, with slightly thinner noodles and more extras, such as coriander, beansprouts, lime and sometimes even hoisin sauce.
Both types have the same base: rice noodles (banh pho) and a beef broth (pho bo). The amber-coloured broth is made by infusing beef bones with onion, ginger, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and cardamom, and seasoning with fish sauce and salt. The beef is then cooked in the broth.
Since the dish has travelled around the world, many variations have been tried, including pho ga or pho with chicken, which, although it is known by some Vietnamese as fake pho, is still very tasty.
Pho can be served with rings of red pepper, beansprouts and sprigs of mint, with stir-fried vegetables or with slices of seared beef. In Ho Chi Minh City, a trendy pho-bar even serves a rainbow variant, where the noodles are coloured with vegetable juices.
How to eat
Pour the soup with noodles and meat into a preheated bowl. Serve any extras, such as beansprouts, herbs, and rings of chilli pepper or lime wedges on a side plate.
The Vietnamese eat their pho in bowls that you can easily fold your hands around. With larger Canadian portion sizes in restaurants, you might need a larger bowl.
If you’re particularly hungry, pho tastes exceptionally good with crispy fried mini rolls (cha gio) and a dash of sriracha or other chilli sauce.
If you like a spicier soup, then try bun rieu, a noodle soup with crabmeat and tomato.