Eat Pho like a Pro: A Primer on One of Vietnam’s Most Famous Dishes

If you’ve ever dreamed of traveling to Vietnam, you’re probably familiar with Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) — a noodle soup made with broth from roasted beef (or chicken) bones, shallot and onion, toasted aromatic spices—like sharp, spicy ginger and star anise—and freshly cooked rice noodles.  It gets its name, like all noodle dishes in Vietnam, from the specific type of rice noodle it’s made with, called bánh phở. What I love most about Pho (and all street foods here) is that each little Pho shop or stand has their own variation, and you’ll even notice that the Pho in the North is prepared differently than in the South. What’s great for Pho gluttons like me is you could probably eat it three times a day for a week and still not hit all the spots in a major city like HCMC or Hanoi.

The Basics: the two most common types are Phở Bo (beef) and Phở Gà (chicken). It’s less popular, but some places will offer a vegetarian version, called Pho Chay. We’re going to focus on the most common type—Pho Bo.

Ordering: Most Pho stands or shops only serve it one way, though they might have a ‘special’ version (ex. Phở Bo Kho, richer and more like a stew), so it’s easy to order. My Vietnamese is kind of rusty, so I usually say hello, and nod at the boiling cauldron of soup, and hold my finger up to say one (or however many if others are eating with me). You can make your way over to a table and wait for your tray to be brought over.

My table is full of unlabeled condiments…help! Each bowl is prepared to order — a steaming bowl of broth-covered rice noodles, topped with thinly-sliced beef, which is often added raw to cook in the broth. Some places will serve it garnished, but most often you’ll also get a heaping plate of delicious soup accessories like lime wedges, Thai basil, bean sprouts, and sometimes cilantro. On the table, there’s a collection of anywhere from 3-10+ condiments to season your soup with, like hot sauce, hoisin, chilis, fish sauce. BUT — before you start seasoning, pay your respects to the cook and give the broth a try before potentially adulterating it. Some Pho broth will be delicious with the addition of a small handful of fresh herbs,  while others might need some serious doctoring up. For me, if the broth is well-seasoned, I go with a couple slices of chili, a small squeeze of lime, and torn fresh herbs.

Now grab yourself a pair of chopsticks and a spoon from the bin on the table and have at it.

Common Pho Condiments

  • Fresh chili
  • Chili sauce – Sriracha in the south, sambal (chili paste), or bright orange sauce
  • Fish sauce (clear, light brown/orange liquid) – salty, meaty flavor
  • Hoisin sauce (dark brown, thick sauce) – sweet + savory
  • Fermented bean paste (salty)
  • (Rarely) Soy sauce

 

Pho is just the start of the world of noodles in Vietnam — some other dishes to look out for are Hủ Tiếu (below), a Southern specialty with a seafood-based broth, and Bún bò Huế, a spicy beef soup from Hue, in central Vietnam, which is known for its spicier cuisine. I hope this has inspired you to explore the amazing street food of Vietnam!

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