Ask any Vietnamese living outside Vietnam about what dish they would eat first when they return to the country; it is most likely that you will get pho as their first answer. Pho is undoubtedly the ambassador which helps raise the profile of Vietnamese cuisine on the global map. However, pho in the heart of its people is more than just a universal dish but a cultural monument that we take pride in, a reminder of how rich and unique our heritage is, and an intimate image that we hold on to as a piece of our soul.
A brief history of pho
What is pho?
Pho was defined for the first time in 1930 in a Vietnamese dictionary as simply “a dish of flat rice noodles cooked with beef.” It is also pho that first made its way to all reputable dictionaries, such as Oxford Learner’s, Cambridge Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster, in which it is recognized as “a type of Vietnamese soup made of beef or chicken broth, usually served with rice noodles, slices of beef and chicken, and herb.” This appearance marked a leap in this dish’s fame and brought it even closer to people around the world.
Where is the name pho rooted?
The complex historical background made it challenging to claim the originality of any of the Vietnamese dishes. With pho – a national dish deeply associated with Vietnamese culture – it is even more complicated when there remain some controversies and hypotheses amid its name and origins.
Some claim that pho is an adaptation of the Chinese beef noodle soup, which is called niu rou fen. It was sung on the streets, and over time, the word was shortened into fen, meaning noodles. However, there is a big collection of noodle dishes in Vietnamese cuisine, and to say that pho is rooted in the word fen is not convincing. Moreover, looking into it, one can tell the differences between the two dishes in all aspects – the ingredients, the cooking method, and the appearance. Chinese beef noodle broth is cooked with white carrot pickles, vegetables, and chili oil, which makes a dark, oily, and spicy soup, while pho broth is clear light, and sweet.
Another hypothesis is that pho originated from the pot-au-feu in French cuisine. This claim is due to the similar pronunciation of the word “feu” and “pho”. But again, pot-au-feu of the French is a stewed beef dish cooked with many types of vegetables and big pieces of fresh-cut meat, and eaten with bread, not noodles. They are different right from the key carbohydrate ingredient, so it is not persuasive to argue that pho is an adapted version of the French dish and that the name pho is a borrowed word from French.
At the same time, there is proof that pho is an original Vietnamese word. First, the word pho is rooted in Chu Nom – a logographic writing system that was formerly recognized as the national Vietnamese writing system before the Latin alphabet was introduced. The three logographic linguistic elements of the word pho literally mean rice, word, and popular, which describe it as a dish made of rice that became popular through word of mouth. Also, there is literary and historical evidence proving the Vietnamese originality of the dish. So, we could settle on the origin of the name pho, which was most likely formed with the Vietnamese logographic writing system, but then, where exactly did pho come from?
Where was pho first created?
Before 1884, the Vietnamese were unfamiliar with eating beef, and buffalo meat was the key source of protein. At first, buffalo meat noodle soup, which originated in Nam Dinh, a province in the Red River Delta, was only served to the manual workers and lower classes. In the late 19th century, the Red River became a prime trading point, creating a busy scene of fully stacked ships, transporting a wide range of goods to Hanoi. The food demand along the river, therefore, dramatically increased, in which the buffalo meat noodle soup was the most favored since it was cheap and filling. This great demand led to a short supply of buffalo meat.
In the meantime, in the North, beef remained a “luxury” good and was mainly consumed by Western officers in Vietnam. According to some historical records, during this period, only one wholesale supplier named Alber Billux had a monopoly over beef distribution in Northern Vietnam. However, in the late 19th century, when Indochina fell under the rule of French colonialism, the demand for beef grew all over the area, and Vietnam was no exception, especially in Hanoi, where a large population of high-ranked French officers was based. In an article published in 1885, it was written that the French in Hanoi were requesting a butcher shop for fresh cuts of beef, a French-style laundromat, a skilled tailor, a shoemaker, and billiard tables in the cafés. Following this proposal, a few months later, the first butcher shop was established on the street of Hanoi, and the beef monopoly was over.
Customarily, Western people only consumed the finest parts of a cow, such as lean meat and steak, while the rest was often left untouched and given away. These parts, especially beef bones, hence, traveled with the ships down to the Red River to compensate for the short supply of buffalo meat. Buffalo meat noodles were gradually replaced with beef, but this replacement initially received complaints about the beefy smell and the need to skim off the fat from the soup when it got cold. That’s when people came up with the idea of constantly keeping the pot of broth on a low fire to avoid the unpleasant layer of beef fat on the surface, which is believed to be how the tradition of eating hot pho in Vietnam came about.
So, generally, pho is a pure Vietnamese dish originated from Nam Dinh, transferred from buffalo meat noodle soup into hot beef noodle soup following the growing influence and practice of eating beef of the French.
When did pho ga come on the scene?
Pho ga (chicken pho) was reportedly first seen around 1939. It is said that in the 1930s, all the butcher shops had to close twice a week, often on Mondays and Fridays, due to temporary supply shortages. A popular explanation for this is that cow and buffalo slaughtering was still limited as they were the major means of plowing in Vietnamese agriculture before engines were commonly used. As a result, pho restaurants in town also had to close on these days, which was unacceptable for the keen fans of pho.
To improvise, some restaurants experimented with a more accessible source of meat which is chicken. Initially, traditional eaters, especially Vietnamese seniors, were openly against this movement. They said that chicken broth was in no way close to the flavorful sweetness and deep fragrance of beef broth. However, the innovative cooks put great emphasis on high-quality free-range chickens, and the addition of local herbs to compensate for the absence of beef and spices. They also made adjustments in the seasoning to better suit the distinguished taste of chickens. Despite a strong wave of boycotts, their hard work paid off, and chicken noodle soup eventually took off in 1939.
When did pho travel southwards?
Under the 1954 Geneva Accords, specifically following Operation Passage to Freedom, Vietnamese civilians were given a 300-day period during which they could migrate freely from the North to the Southern half of Vietnam. The number of Northern Vietnamese who fled South went up to almost 1 million, with the majority originating from the Red River Delta region, including Hanoi, Hai Phong, and Nam Dinh – the hometown of pho. Obviously, they brought the pho recipe with them to the cities where they relocated. Over 20 years later, the Liberation of Saigon in 1975 witnessed another huge influx of migrants to the South, resulting in the presence of pho all across the country.
How did pho become a culinary ambassador for Vietnam?
1975 was not only a historic year for Vietnamese warfare but also a transitional period for pho to travel across lands and seas to many parts of the world. Thousands of South Vietnamese civilians were evacuated following the Liberation of Saigon.
Pho is the heart and soul of the Vietnamese; wherever we go, it will follow. So, it would be irrational not to have this beloved dish in such cities as California and Paris, where there was a large Vietnamese population, or some known as the “Little Saigon.” However, pho in the early stage of the voyage was insignificant. It was cooked with packaged dried noodles, slices of frozen beef, and mediocre broth due to the lack of original seasonings and spices.
Not until the late 80s, when the economic reforms and open-door era were initiated, and with the operation of Vietnam Airlines, pho’s quality and originality improved. Thanks to aviation shipments of Vietnamese spices, herbs, and seasonings, pho gained back its popularity among the Vietnamese and spread its reputation to the native communities.
In the United States, the appealing taste of pho successfully convinced not only Vietnamese immigrants but also non-Vietnamese diners of its business potential. In 1990, the first pho restaurant run by an American chef, Didi Emmons, opened in Massachusetts, and the trend quickly caught on and spread to other states across the country. After gaining popularity in the United States, pho started to appear in neighboring countries such as Laos and Cambodia, as well as in European countries, Australia, and Russia.
The story of pho was once again told on the Korean national TV programme, and people in the Land of Kimchi showed exceptional favor for pho.
So, after almost half a century, pho had affirmed its position not only as a Vietnamese culinary quintessential but also as an emblem of the S-shaped country.
The essence of pho lies within its deeply flavored and scented broth. Don’t trust the “instant” pho recipes you find on the Internet since making broth is a meticulous process that requires a decent amount of time and cannot be cut short.
There are three key groups of ingredients that are essential to making a rich and authentic pho broth:
- Onion and ginger are grilled until their skin starts to char and you can smell the slightly burnt aroma. Then, they are scraped and cut into quarters.
- Spices including anises, cinnamon, and cloves are first roasted before being tied up in a cooking cloth bag and then added to the pot of broth.
- Beef bones (especially oxtails) and meat are parboiled before entering the simmering process to remove impurities. This stage aims to bring a clean and clear broth later on. Bones and meat are drained and placed back in another pot where charred onions and ginger, and roasted spices are subsequently added. Some rock sugar and a few drops (or more) of fish sauce are added to bring up the exclusive fragrance. These are then simmered for 1 – 8 hours (of course the longer the better) while the cook occasionally skims and removes any foam or bubbles on the surface to keep the broth clean. You cannot expect a perfectly clear Pho broth without such great dedication.
It can be confusing when it comes to distinguishing Vietnamese noodles since there are more than twenty types used in different types of dishes. Traditionally, pho is cooked with flat rice noodles, which are slightly chewy and super silky. It is believed that the wide and silky surface of this type of noodle allows more broth and flavor to be transported along the flat rice noodles.
In the South, especially in the Mekong Delta, people use clear rice noodles – the ones used for making hu tieu, because of their wide availability and preference towards the chewiness of these noodle stripes.
There is a wide range of beef in a bowl of pho, but sliced eye-round steak is the most typical. A regular bowl of noodles would come with eye round steak thinly sliced and rare-cooked by pouring the boiling hot broth onto it. In addition, tendon, flank steak, brisket, and meatballs are also available to provide more texture and flavor.
The addition of green herbs and vegetables to pho remains culturally controversial among the locals. You should expect different kinds of vegetables, which vary regarding geographic location. However, it is typically paired with blanched bean sprouts, Vietnamese basil leaves, and cilantro. Also, lime cuts and sliced chilies are readily served and added according to personal preference.
Pho is traditionally eaten with garlic vinegar and minced chili sauce. One looking for an intense flavor could add fish sauce or hoisin sauce.
Types of pho
Despite being known as a universal dish, pho varies greatly in terms of the noodle’s shape, broth, side dishes, and dipping sauce in the North and the South, with slight variations among localities in each region.
Pho in Northern Vietnam
In the North, the eating practice of pho reflects the efforts of preserving the traditional values, as the nature of the tranquil and ancient region itself. People are quite conservative when it comes to enjoying the soup. They prioritize the natural sweetness of the broth and would like to keep it that way. So, you hardly see any addition or adjustment to a bowl of pho in the North.
In its hometown – Nam Dinh, pho is added with the first extract of fish sauce and the extra use of ginger to dominate other aromatic spices such as cloves and cinnamon. The noodles used in pho Nam Dinh are also unique: they are manually pressed and cut, so each stripe is super thin and not even in size (usually double the size of ordinary noodles). These are also the star of pho Nam Dinh, as you can really feel the silky smooth texture when you slurp down the noodles and the soup. And only in Nam Dinh can you find pho with eye round steak pounded and made into a flower, displayed on top of a bed of noodles with a lot of ground black pepper for a more intense spicy effect.
Although Nam Dinh is known as the home to the original version of pho, it cannot be denied that it is Hanoi that put this dish on the global culinary map. Specifically, you will find pho in Hanoi is cooked with flat rice noodles but with a significantly smaller size compared to those in Nam Dinh since they are believed to soak up the broth better and fully transport its flavor. The broth is extracted from pork bones and lean meat so it is light and distinctively clear as you rarely see any fat bubbles floating on the soup.
Northern people also limit the seasoning to only fish sauce and fresh chilies and are against adding bean sprouts and other green herbs to their bowl of pho. This is to preserve or, in their terms, to show appreciation for the dedication put toward the cooking of such sweet essence of the broth. To balance the sweetness according to the yin-yang principles in the Eastern eating custom, northern people opt for only garlic vinegar, in which sliced garlic is pickled to extract the spice while preserving all the vitamins and minerals. Also noticeably, a bowl of pho in the North is topped with a lot of green onion and their preferred meat toppings are eye-round steak, beef brisket, flank, and tendon. Although people in the North do not like messing up their pho with side veggies or sauces, there is one thing that could make an exception – the crispy fried breadsticks (banh quay). The fried breadsticks are dipped in the soup and eaten alongside pho. It may sound strange to pair a starchy snack with a noodle soup, but it does taste good and actually a brilliant way to soak up the soup so that one can enjoy it to the last drop.
Pho in Central Vietnam
Although not popular, this version shows the limitless creativity of pho. Central cuisine is deeply influenced by the harsh climate and disadvantageous living conditions of the region. Annually hit by many storms and floods, people here really tighten their belts and develop a more intense palate that draws toward more salty and spicy flavors as a way to consume less food. As a result, pho in the Central is characterized by a stronger aroma and more intense flavors. Unlike in the North, pho in the central region is made with medium-sized flat rice noodles which turn transparent when well-cooked but remain slightly chewy even after being in the hot soup for a while. Moreover, the broth here is not clear and clean but beautifully golden, since it is a traditional practice to use annatto oil in their cooking. If you have a chance to try out pho in Central Vietnam, you will find there is a hint of sourness in its broth. This is because the spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, and anise, are replaced with tomato and pineapple that cater to the local taste. Besides that, pho is sided with preferred regional vegetables like banana flowers, beefsteak leaves, and chopped lettuce. Finally, instead of garlic, red onion (or shallot) pickles, and fresh or sate chilies are added to pho to intensify its taste.
Pho in Southern Vietnam
Pho in the South is as flexible and easy-going as its people. Instead of using big flat rice noodles, Southern people use their thin rice noodles to make pho, which stays firm in the broth and brings a chewier texture. Moreover, pho in the South has a unique fat layer on the surface (which is called nuoc beo – fatty soup), which is steamed from beef brisket. The term “fatty” is just a literal translation while the actual broth is not greasy or fatty at all, but instead, really rich in meaty flavor and extremely flavorful. Geographically located in the tropical climate, which is beneficial for growing plants and vegetables, eating green veggies with almost every dish has become a thing in Southern Vietnamese cuisine, and pho is no exception. People in the South like to add a bunch of bean sprouts, cilantro leaves, and basil leaves to the dish, and they may have their veggies blanched to reduce the leafy taste. Unlike the North, Southern people favor lime cuts to add a touch of acidic taste to their bowl of noodles, instead of garlic vinegar or pickled shallots.
The eating culture of pho
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. It is recommended that, if you are eating this dish in the North, you keep your bowl of pho as minimal and original as possible, which means minimizing the addition of hoisin sauce and blanched/fresh vegetables and herbs; if you are in the South, feel free to season until it pleases your palate.
Go for the “special combo.” To have a complete experience with Vietnamese pho, we recommend you order a pho dac biet (or a special combo), which has all the available toppings you can try. Typically, there are rare eye-round steaks, beef brisket, beef flank, tendon, and meatballs. This will give you an overview of what pho is all about.
Make your own dipping sauce. Vietnamese cuisine features a wide range of dressing and dipping sauces that perfectly complement the dish they are paired with. For pho, especially on your first try, we recommend not adding sauce directly to the bowl so that you can have an idea about how it originally tastes. Instead, you can make a separate small bowl of dipping sauce by adding (1) a bit of hoisin sauce, (2) chili sauce or chili satay, (3) a few drops of lime juice or garlic vinegar, then mixing them up. This is for dipping meatballs and other meat toppings, and after all, you can add a bit of this into your bowl and experiment with its taste.
Where to eat pho
For decades, pho has served as a culinary ambassador, showcasing Vietnamese flavors to the world. While the dish can now be found globally, nothing compares to the experience of savoring the Vietnamese noodle soup in its hometown. To make it easy for you to find an authentic pho restaurant, here are some of our suggestions for where to enjoy it:
- Pho Thin
Address: 13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District
Price: 70,000 VND ($2.9)
- Ly Quoc Su
Address: 10 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem District
Price: 70,000 VND
- Lan Beo
Address: 01 Ngo Huy Dien, Cam Le District
Price: 70,000 VND
- Viet Beo
Address: 35 Ly Tu Trong, Hai Chau District
Price: 65,000 VND
Ho Chi Minh City
- Pho Hung
Address: 243 Nguyen Trai, District 1
Price: 70,000 VND
- Phu Vuong
Address: 120 Nguyen Thai Binh, District 1
Price: 70,000 VND