What is Pho?

Pho, considered the national dish of Vietnam, has managed to capture many people’s attention. It may look like a simple dish, but its complexities run deep. It’s not as easy as boiling noodles in broth and throwing in some spices. Its rich history is what makes it so special, and such a common commodity. The richness of the beef, the essence of the spices and the intensity of the herbs, make this dish, much more than just a dish. In fact, Pho can be found anywhere, since in Vietnam, it is considered street food. Light, warm and fulfilling at the same time, Pho fills the stomachs and hearts of everyone who manages to devour it.

What Exactly is Pho Soup?

Pho has complex layers to it, the tender beef, the broth and the added vegetables like bean sprouts that really give it that kick. Traditionally, Pho is made from thick rice noodles as its foundation, topped with finely sliced pieces of beef. The beef typically gets cooked when a portion of the spicy beef broth is poured onto it. After the Pho is garnished with fresh herbs like cilantro and basil, it adds that extra flavor. For added texture, crunchy bean sprouts, hot chiles, and tart lime can give the Pho an extra edge over other dishes.

Although the origins of the pho are still in the dark, many historians agree that the dish emerged around the 20th century in northern Vietnam. It is believed that it was developed under the influence of the French, during the period of Vietnam’s colonization. The name “Pho” itself is believed to have been influenced by the French beef stew, “pot au feu”, playing around the word “feu”. “Pot au feu” literally translates to “pot on fire”, which represents the long hours that the broth needs to be cooked for. Similar to pho, the marrow heavy beef bones are used to make the broth. These bones are left to simmer in water on low heat for three hours at least. After they have been boiled, the scum and foam that eventually form are then removed.

The fact that nowadays, chefs infuse ginger and onion roasted on open flame into the broth, is also very similar to how pot au feu is prepared. The main difference is the toppings, where pot au feu uses vegetables like carrots and turnips, pho makes use of bean sprouts and herbs.

More so seen as a breakfast dish, the assortments of toppings can vary. It can be topped with chicken as well, but that does not compare to the savory and rich flavour of the beef marrow by being slowly simmered in the flavorful broth. Many people mistake the dish as a soup dish, like ramen. Instead, it a noodle dish due to its special rice noodles. Other than the traditional way, no two bowls of Pho are the same. There are many variations of Pho, which have many different spices or herbs mixed in. Many like to add star anise, cloves and cinnamon to add aroma and a distinct flavour. Some go as far as adding ginger and funky fish sauce. It also depends on whether pho bac or pho nam is being prepared.

Pho bac originates from the northern regions of Vietnam, while pho nam comes from the Southern region. The difference in taste is that divides the dish between the two regions. The northern regions are not as diverse and rich as are those in the south. The northern Vietnamese are used to acquiring ingredients where they can find them, as the food items are rather scarce. It is believed that the name pho bac came to be because at the time of colonization, the Vietnamese use the discarded beef bones of the French to make the dish. It has a delicate yet intense flavor. It is quite simple compared to its counterpart that is rich in flavor. The star anise and other commonly used spices serve as subtle after tastes, rather than intense in aroma or taste. Pho bac consists mainly of ingredients such as noodles as the base, thinly sliced beef and the most important, the hot broth that consumes the former two and simmers slowly. Pho bac lacks finesse, as it is kept simple, without garnish or fancy herbs as toppings.

In South Vietnam, there are rich sources of ingredients, which can really turn the dish around. Herbs and spices have no restriction and can be used in abundance. Lavishly used garnishes and extra additions create the South’s pho nam. They experiment with tripe and chicken as well using hoisin sauce of fish sauce to add more of a unique taste. It is quite simple to make. With the blend of charred vegetables, a vegan version of the dish can also be made. Instead of beef or chicken topping, tofu can act as the main source of protein. By using vegetable broth and skipping out on the fish sauce, you can make the vegetarian version very tasty. Add some pieces of seitan, bok choy, broccoli and even mushrooms to make the dish vary in flavor.

If you travel to Las Vegas, you’ll see no shortage of Pho.  In fact, the best pho restaurant in the USA is there.  Click here to read about their amazing pho.

If you don’t feel like spending all day in the kitchen just preparing the noodle dish, luckily sections of it can be prepared ahead of time. The broth can actually be prepped and boiled, and the kept refrigerated for 5 days and frozen for up to 3 months. The noodles can be prepared by being tossed with a bit of neutral tasting oil, and can be kept in the fridge for up to a day. It is imperative that the beef not be kept frozen for more than 24 hours after being sliced and prepped. Similarly, leftovers can always be kept for a day or two. By storing all the components such as beef, noodles, broth and garnishes in separate containers, you can store for five days. The dish can always be assembled by combining all the components and heating them together. So sit back, enjoy your simple and easy to make dish!




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Peter is a digital nomad who largely writes from Asia, Europe, and South America. Always following the "vibe," he sets up shop in hostels and AirBNB's and continues to entertain us with wild stories from life abroad.

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