Being Vietnamese foodie guides taking many travelers on our food tours, one of the most frequently asked questions we received when it comes to trying Pho is “What exactly is Pho, what is not?”
For us, that’s a very interesting question. Because, there are up to 164 varieties of Vietnamese noodle dishes, many of them are using the same noodle and similar looking broth. Obviously, not all of them are pho. Therefore, determining what’s pho and what’s not could be daunting for many travelers.
While this article blog post is not comprehensive to an academic knowledge about pho, we aim to answer these questions about pho as a foodie guide to help you set the record straight once and for all.
First thing first, what’s Pho?
Pho, “Phở” in Vietnamese, is a Vietnamese noodle dish consisting of rice noodles, broth, meat and fresh herbs such as scallion, cilantro, and onion. Pho is served in a thick ceramic bowl when the broth is still boiling hot, and is sided with some fresh basils, bean sprouts, and a lime wedge.
There are two kinds of Pho, either Pho bo (beef noodle soup) or Pho ga (chicken noodle soup). So, if you are trying a noodle soup without beef or chicken, your noodle soup could be any kind of Vietnamese noodle soup but Pho (except the vegetarian version of Pho). In details, they look like this:
Pho bo (beef noodle soup)
Pho bo, or beef noodle soup, is considered a Vietnamese national dish. It consists of sliced beef, beef stock, rice noodles, and topped with chopped ginger, scallion, yellow onion and cilantros.
Pho ga (chicken noodle soup)
Pho ga, or chicken noodle soup, is the other version of Vietnamese pho. It consists of chopped or shredded free-range chicken, chicken broth, rice noodles, and topped with chopped scallion and thinly sliced lime leaves.
Where did Pho come from?
Though pho is considered a Vietnam’s national dish, the beginning of pho remains murky. In Vietnam, there is nothing officially written about the early history of pho. What we mostly know about the history of pho are from oral traditions handed down by elders. However, there is a conclusion from researchers agreed by many local cuisine experts that the original place of pho is Nam Dinh, a farming province in southern Hanoi, and its history started from the late 1880s.
According to these researchers, before the French conquered Vietnam in 1858, Vietnamese people did not slaughter cows for food. In stead, we used cows to till rice paddy fields and to ease other burdens from farming.
When explaining about the word “pho”, researchers stated that it is a corruption of the French word – “feu” (fire). Hence, pho could be a Vietnamese adaption of the French soup “pot au feu” (the French beef stew), which the French brought to Vietnam when they came to colonialize the country.
The French brought “pot au feu” to Vietnam and encouraged the local people to slaughter cows for food. Poorer people in northern Vietnam learned to take the beef parts and bones that the French did not want for their table, created the legendary marrow-rich beef bone stock for the Vietnamese pho.
What Makes Pho Special?
The broth is what making pho special, and a good pho depends first and foremost on the quality of the broth. It’s the difference between a bad homemade pho and a good pho, a normal pho restaurant and really good one. So, if one knows how to make a good broth, then everything else is just a matter of getting the pho ingredients from the markets.
Pho is not pho without its broth, it’s the vital element that gives pho its life and soul. If you can enjoy the pho broth wholeheartedly, then the rest of the ingredients in the bowl will be enjoyable and you will want to slurp up to the last drops.
How Pho is Cook?
From the early days when Pho first came to life, beef bones are left to boil and simmer in water on low heat for at least three hours, the scum and foam formed by excess grease from the bone marrow are skimmed to discard.
The process that pho is cooked largely varies on the skill and dedication of the person cooking it. Most pho recipes have many common elements between them, from the ingredients that go into the broth to the length of time required in making it.
Our chefs in our Hanoi cooking class calls for the following ingredients: ginger, shallots, yellow onions, marrow-rich beef bones and beef knuckle bones, star anise, cinnamon, salt, fish sauce, yellow rock sugar, cloves, cardamon, scallion, cilantro and fresh rice noodles. If you want to try and make pho yourself, here’s a generic process to cook pho bo and cook pho ga at home.
Where Do We Eat Pho?
Though pho is the most popular breakfast in Hanoi, people rarely cook pho at home. Instead, they go a traditional pho restaurant to have a good pho. Perhaps, the amount of time it takes to cook the pho broth is what turning people off from trying to cook Pho at home.
As many pho lovers already know, it takes at least three hours to simmer a standard broth. A good broth usually requires the beef bones to be boiled gently for six to eight hours, high quality traditional pho restaurants are known to simmer the beef bones up to 12 hours or more!
Why do we need to boil the bones for so long? It’s because it takes time for the marrow in the bones to dissolve into the broth. A hard boil will distort the flavors of the pho broth.
How to order Pho?
When we take our street food tour‘s travelers to some of the famous pho restaurants in Hanoi, we see that ordering pho is really a perplexing matter to many foreigners. Especially, some pho restaurants inadvertently make their menus more complex than needed for travelers, making them like a mishmash of Vietnamese words.
Actually, it’s pretty easy to order pho at a local restaurant if you just keep these 2 things in mind: what meat do you want, and which part do you like.
What meat do you want, beef pho or chicken pho?
As we talked earlier, there are two types of pho: pho bo and pho ga, or beef pho and chicken pho, respectively. Good pho restaurants in Hanoi serve only one type – either beef or chicken, so depending on the restaurant you come in – you can only order either beef or chicken. But you may also come across a hotel breakfast where they serve different kinds of Pho, including a vegetarian version. So, take your pick: beef pho or chicken pho.
Which beef or chicken parts do you like?
With beef pho, restaurants in Hanoi serve a variety of beef parts for their customers to choose as the meat for the soup. The most basic meat is sliced rare beef steak, which is called “bo tai” or just “tai” in Vietnamese. It tastes great and represents the typical pho bo, so it’s ideal choice for most of our travelers. Following is a pho bo decoded menu:
- Phở tái – Sliced rare tenderloin, eye of round, or ribeye.
- Phở chín – Sliced well-done flank or brisket
- Phở tái chín – Rare and well-done beef (tasty combo)
- Phở nạm – Flank
- Phở tái nạm – Rare and Flank
- Phở vè dòn – Crunchy flank
- Phở gầu – Fatty brisket
- Phở gân – Tendon
- Phở sách – Tripe
Yet, you'd never guess but there are ways to further customizing your pho, if you want to tailor your own pho, just ask for any of the following:
- Nước trong – Non-fat broth (this is what everyone gets by default)
- Nước béo – Fatty broth, with extra fat.
- Ít bánh – Less noodle, “banh” refers to “banh pho” which is of course the pho noodle itself.
- Nhiều bánh – More noodle
- Ít thịt – Less meat
- Nước béo hành trần – Fatty broth with blanched onions on the side
- Không hành – No scallion
- Không hành tây – No onion
Condiments available at every pho restaurant:
- Nước mắm – Fish sauce for those who like more salty taste
- Quẩy – Fried breadsticks (extra order) for those who like to get very full
- Lime – For those who like a little citrus
- Garlic vinegar – Our favorite addition. Gives it a nice tangy touch!
- Chili sauce – These can vary in quality as some are homemade while others aren’t.
You're now ready for some real serious pho adventures in Hanoi. For most of us, a regular bowl of pho bo is totally sufficient. But for a few, getting pho exactly right can only be achieved by ordering pho their own way. So have fun on your pho outing.
For chicken pho, there are also a wide selection of chicken meat parts to go into your pho ga such as chicken thighs, chicken back, chicken wings, chicken neck, and organs such as heart and liver, even unlaid chicken eggs.
When first visiting a chicken pho place and seeing all of these chicken parts on display, it seems strange to our travelers but it’s a commonplace in Hanoi. We often tell them that when we find a restaurant serving free-range chicken, and serves with a side dipping salt mixed with lime, minced ginger and sliced lime leaves, we are in a heaven!
From our notice after years of taking travelers on our foodie experiences, among all the Vietnamese food that come to their radar, nothing else has received as tremendous acceptance as Pho. The dish captured the fascination of both Asian and Western travelers because of its deceptive simplicity and its complex flavors. For many Vietnamese, Pho is a perfect comfort breakfast, warm and deliciously refreshing. In Hanoi, pho is truly a street food everyone loves.
Well, hope our article post helps you with understanding a bit more about Pho – our national dish. Please contact us if you are looking for a private Hanoi food tour with a real local foodie, we’re good at what we are doing and looking forward to showing you around our city.