How to Eat Pho

How to Eat Pho

I’ve been going on and on about Vietnamese food and how delicious it is. And every now and then I mention in my posts about “pho”- the most famous Vietnamese noodle soup. Many of my foreign friends and guests fell in love with “pho’’ when they discovered the traditional food of Hanoi. Pho is no doubt the most shining star in Hanoi’s food map. Ever wonder what is the right way to eat pho? Who doesn’t know about pho you said? You have eaten pho many times and you can eat it even with your eyes closed? Well, it is not that easy to eat this brilliant Hanoi dish.

I’ve seen many people having no idea what to do with that hot bowl. Some use chopsticks to fish the noodles out of the bowl. Some never know what chili and lime are for. Some just don’t even know the broth is delicious and eatable. To fully enjoy a bowl of pho you have to know the basic rules.  I’m now going to share with you about how Hanoian people eat pho traditionally and the best way to enjoy a bowl of pho.

Queuing to order a bowl of pho
Queuing to order a bowl of pho

“Pho”- Vietnamese noodle soup and the way to eat it properly

What makes a bowl of pho? Basically there are 5 ingredients: fresh rice noodles, good-cut meat (beef or chicken) hot broth, fresh herbs, and the right spices. All those 5 combined in the best-balanced way to make a good bowl. The first rule of a good bowl of noodles is: that pho has to be served in ceramic bowls. It will taste like junk if served in plastic or glass bowls. The bowls to serve have to be medium-sized not too big not too small. If it is too big there is too much pho and you will lose your appetite.

Because pho is supposed to be a side dish or a small meal only. If is it too small the broth will cool down too quickly causing the dish to not be tasty anymore. Also in a tiny bowl, you cannot put enough of the right quantity of noodles, meat, and other spices in.

Species to cook pho: Onion, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, cardamon…

The second rule is to use a spoon together with chopsticks when eating pho. In Vietnam, you’ll see a wide variety of chopsticks: plastic ones, metal ones…and bamboo chopsticks. The most suitable for eating noodles is a pair of bamboo chopsticks as they are light and easy to grip. When using chopsticks to fish the pho out of the bowl, use a spoon to spoon some broth at the same time. You then eat the noodles and drink some broth out of the spoon.

By doing it that way the bite in your mouth combines everything: some noodles, meat, herbs,s and broth. It will be much more juicy and delicious than when you eat the noodles only. Some may choose to eat the noodles first and then drink the broth directly from the bowl. But the best way is to combine chopsticks and a spoon. That’s the reason why you’ll always see a spoon being served together with chopsticks.

Always use a spoon and chopsticks to eat pho

Always use a spoon and chopsticks to eat pho

Now when this dish has become so popular all over Vietnam, you’ll see pho being served everywhere: from the narrowest street alleys to the most expensive franchises and hotels. Should you eat pho in a hotel? Will a big restaurant be as good as the one on the street? The place to eat pho is also very important. If you expect to have a good bowl of pho in a big restaurant or hotel you may be disappointed. In those places, pho is just one dish among the many choices on the menu.

And people never go to a big restaurant to eat pho only. Thus they don’t invest enough time and work to make the best noodle soup. Instead, go to a pho-only restaurant. Only pho-only restaurants put in enough time and work to serve you the best bowl. To make the good broth they have to cook cow and pig bones for around 10 hours over a coal stove. The pots used to cook broth have to be big enough to contain enough broth to serve the whole day. When you come to a pho-only restaurant and you see a huge pot about 1 meter tall right in front, that’s when you’ll have a chance to get a good bowl.

That’s the reason why you can hardly find a good bowl of pho in a restaurant where they are not noodle experts. So next time you eat pho, choose a street-side pho-only restaurant over a fancy all-in-one restaurant. You are likely to get a very much better bowl of this special dish.

It tastes the best in a traditional street “pho only” restaurant
It tastes the best in a traditional street “pho only” restaurant

How many kinds of pho are there and what are the best? Originally there were only 2 kinds: beef or chicken. Nowadays to please eaters they can even create pho with pork, shrimp, or whatever their customers want. In some way, I want to blame that restaurant for destroying the traditional Noodle soup. Pho is only good when it is served with either beef or chicken. Putting any other kind of meat into this dish is the wrong way of eating pho.

And it is simply not pho anymore. And my recommendation is: when you know your preference beef or chicken, you go to the restaurant that serves either beef or chicken, not both. That’s because when they have only one thing to do, they tend to do it the best. Noodle restaurants that offer you both kinds of beef and chicken there will be likely less chance for you to have the best pho of the day. So how can you tell if they use the best ingredients?

Good pho restaurant invests a lot of time to prepare the best meat for their customers. They will have to wake up very early in the morning to go to the markets just to buy the best fresh cuts from butchers’. Chickens have to be the Vietnamese free-range farms and are raised in natural conditions. Farm chickens in big quantities are never used to make a good bowl. The raw beef should be lean and look deep red and fresh. Together with the broth, meat plays an important role in making a good bowl of pho.

Pho Bo - Vietnamese beef noodle
Pho Bo – Vietnamese beef noodle

I’ve seen many tourists eating a bowl of pho and drinking a Hanoi beer at the same time. It can be good only for taking some photos of you eating and then showing your friends. Beer never makes a perfect pair with pho. Worse there are people eating pho with a Coca cola, tea, coffee, or other kinds of soft drinks. When eating this dish you don’t have to drink anything together. If you want to drink do it later when you’re finished.

The only drink acceptable here is a small cup of Vietnamese rice wine. It will increase your appetite when eating pho. But since Vietnamese rice wine is so strong (about 40 percent alcohol) you should not combine it too much with pho. Otherwise, it could erase your taste.

Pho Ga - Vietnamese chicken noodle
Pho Ga – Vietnamese chicken noodle

When is the best time of the day to eat pho? Well of course you can eat it anytime in the day and it is served the whole day: for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even supper. But to my experience pho tastes the best in the morning, for breakfast. That’s when you’ve woken up from a long sleep and your stomach is empty. Pho being served as a complete small meal will fill you easily. And in the early morning, the weather is still cool not too hot you’ll find it easier to eat a hot bowl. As I said earlier pho has to be eaten supper hot. You will not enjoy it too much when it is almost 40 °C outside.

The last factor to make a perfect bowl is the side species. You will often see noodle restaurants display fresh chili, chili sauce, lemon or lime, pepper, and garlic-soared vinegar on every table. When a hot bowl of pho comes, you then squeeze some drop lemon in, add chili or chili sauce to your taste, and pepper if it is beef noodles. The pickled garlic with vinegar can be used instead of lemon. Now mix everything well and drink a spoon of broth to make sure your bowl is now perfectly spiced. It’s now time to enjoy the most popular dish of Vietnam.


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