Pho, the Vietnam’s most famous noodle dish, is considered by many Vietnamese as the national dish, though it has been served mostly as a street food targeting common people in the last hundred years of its history. Not only in Vietnam, the migrations of the Vietnamese following the end of the American war have brought Pho to many corners around the global. Today, the Vietnam’s national dish has been capturing the fascination of people from all over the world.
Most travelers to Vietnam have either eaten some noodle dishes at a Vietnamese restaurant at home country, or heard about the dish from somewhere along the way. But beside Pho, Vietnamese cuisine also features many other dishes made with rice noodles. That is why, on my Hanoi food tour yesterday, the first question from a client was that which noodle dish is Pho and what’s not? While there are many noodle dishes available, they are not necessary Pho (I would share about other noodle dishes beyond Pho in my next post). In this article, let me share with you what’s the Vietnamese Pho and what is not.
What’s a Vietnamese Pho?
First, Pho is a Vietnamese noodle dish, which is often called a noodle soup. It’s actually a meal rather than just a soup like soups at the beginning of meals in many western cultures. There are two types of Pho; Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) and Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup). A bowl of Pho consists of hot broth, cut flat rice noodles, thinly sliced meats (beef or chicken) and spices (sometimes garnishes are also added).
So what make a bowl of Pho so special? In each traditional bowl of Pho, beef or chicken, there is always the sweet broth from the rich essence of the bones, which can only be achieved by simmering marrow-rich beef/ chicken bones on low heat for hours. Next factors are the tender beef/ chicken slices, textures of the flat rice noodles, and layers of flavors from the spices and herbs like spring onions and corianders.
The most important factor of Pho is the broth - the sould of the bowl, and to make sure the broth tastes good, these ingredients are often added when a beef broth is cooked: marrow-rick beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, charred ginger, spices, cinnamon, star anise, roasted ginger, roasted onion, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed, and clove.
The broth for chicken Pho is also cooked using the same spices as the beef broth, but the broth in chicken pho is prepared using chicken bones and chicken meat, as well as some internal organs of the chicken such as the heart, the undeveloped eggs and the gizzard.
In Vietnam, people prefer going to a Pho Restaurant which focuses on only one type of Pho, either beef or chicken pho. So it’s depending on the restaurant you come in, you can only order what they are selling, not both of them. You will be generally asked which parts of the beef you would prefer and how you want it done. Options for Pho Bo are: medium rare meat, medium to well-done meat, sautéed beef, beef balls or brisket. While options for Pho Ga include: chicken breast, chicken innards, chicken thigh, and immature chicken eggs.
Beside the meat, you can also order some extra roached chicken egg come topped on the bowl, and some Vietnamese rice donuts to dip with the broth.
Author note: This is how to eat a bowl of Pho like a Vietnamese using chopsticks and spoon.
What’s Not Pho?
Like in the sense of sushi and sashimi, they way to differentiate them is that if there’s no rice (vinegar rice), it’s not sushi. If you don’t see beef or chicken in the bowl of the noodle dish, then it’s not Pho. The soup will possibly be hu tieu or some type of bun, which are rice vermicelli served with fish, shrimp, pork, squid …
Of cause, you can order Pho without meats, or with meats on the side. Also there is pho chay (vegetarian pho), which is normally served in vegetarian restaurants. Pho chay looks and tastes different from real pho, but still considered pho.
Bottom line: if there is no beef nor chicken, it’s not Pho (except vegetarian versions).
Hope this post help you understand more about the Vietnamese pho, enjoy a hot bowl of Pho on the street if you are in Hanoi.