Pho is a broth-based noodle soup that features prominently in Vietnamese cuisine. The word is pronounced like "fuh" for English speakers, as the "ph" is said as the “f” sound. In Vietnamese, the proper pronunciation depends on accurate fluctuation between low and high tones, but non-native speakers who come close can usually be understood. The soup comes in several different variations, but typically centers on a broth base made from chicken, beef, or seafood. Thick rice noodles float in the broth alongside pieces of meat, vegetables, and a range of spices and herbs. Different chefs often have different specialties when it comes to taste, flavor combinations, and spiciness.
Importance of Broth
According to many Vietnamese food experts, the “secret” of this soup is its broth. Additions and toppings often define how it is named, but the underlying flavor of the base is often what separates the truly delicious soups from the imitators. Getting a good start takes time, and also a bit of patience.
Broth begins by simmering bones and fatty meat pieces in water, and spices such as ginger, star anise, and cardamom are added in at the cook’s discretion. The simmering pot must usually be tended for several hours to give the flavors a chance to meld and harmonize. Ideally, this base is made fresh for each pot of soup. Restaurants and commercial operations may make it ahead of time, then refrigerate it before reheating. Once made, the broth will usually last for a few days in an airtight container.
There are more than 20 “standard” versions of Pho, and a far greater number of innovations and unique creations. Still, most fall under the three main categories of beef, chicken, and seafood. Soup with a beef broth base is known as pho bo, while chicken-based versions are pho ga. A soup with a seafood broth is usually labeled pho hai san.
Cooks generally have a lot of flexibility when it comes to exactly how these distinctions are expressed. Basically any part of the animal at issue can be used. It is not uncommon to find beef stomach alongside strips of steak, for instance, and nearly all parts of the chicken are fair game. Seafood is usually the most flexible category. Crab, shrimp, eel, or most any kind of fish can be used — whatever is available and tastes good with the broth is usually what cooks will go with.
Serving and Common Preparation
The dish is traditionally served in deep, wide bowls. Most of the time, it is presented simply as a broth with floating noodles and meat with an assortment of herbs, spices, and sauces in individual dishes on the side. This way, diners can experiment with the soup and make it their own. Chopped Thai basil is very popular, as are bean sprouts, lemon and lime wedges, and narrowly sliced chili peppers. Aromatic fish sauce and hoisin sauce are also common additions.
Origins and History
There is no clear indication of when, exactly, pho entered the Vietnamese culinary scene, though a lot of people trace the surge in its common popularity to Northern Vietnam in the early 1950s. The Vietnamese Communist government actively closed pho restaurants during this time in favor of restaurants they could own. The quality of the government-run pho establishments was considered by most to be little short of poor, and Saigon, in South Vietnam, became a popular area for restaurants that specialized in this dish. The soup gained a lot of notoriety with service members from all around the world during the Vietnam war and military occupation.
Some people trace the soup's origins to France, as the French beef stew pot-au-feu has a similar rich beef broth and the French occupied Vietnam for a number of years. Others view China as the major influence on its development. The use of rice noodles and multiple spices is typical of Chinese cooking, and China ruled Vietnam for more than a thousand years, well before the French ever arrived. Whatever the exact origin, the soup is very much an inextricable part of modern Vietnamese cuisine.
Tips for Home Cooks
Making pho at home can be as simple or exacting as cooks have time for. Most people get the best results by following traditional methods as much as possible, including simmering the broth for at least a few hours. Those with compressed time can often get similar results with prepared chicken, beef, or fish broth, though it is usually a good idea to sprinkle in at least some seasonings to add depth.
Using fresh rice noodles is usually also the best course of action, but buying dried versions is often a lot more practical. Reconstituting the noodles in the broth generally gives the best results. Some shops sell all-in-one “kits” that contain everything needed for making a meal, but most of these are inferior to dishes made with fresh ingredients. However the soup starts, though, there is always plenty of room for creative cooks to innovate and add their own mark. Using fresh spices, vegetables, and herbs are easy ways to make even the blandest meals taste like they took hours to prepare.