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What is Pho?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

Popular Varieties

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.

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Discussion Comments
By donasmrs — On Oct 31, 2012
@ysmina-- I don't know if people in Vietnam have seafood pho often, but it's available in most restaurants that serve pho. I had seafood pho just recently at a Vietnamese restaurant, so I don't think it's weird at all.

I really liked the seafood pho I had. It had shrimp, crab and lots of greens in it. I think seafood pho has a lighter broth than other types of pho. I liked that as well because the chicken and beef pho can be too strong and heavy for me, especially for breakfast.

By ysmina — On Oct 31, 2012

Can I make pho with seafood, like shrimp? Or is that too weird?

By SarahGen — On Oct 30, 2012

@summing-- I agree with you. The broth is definitely the most important and the most difficult part to get right.

One major mistake I've done with pho soup is that I used the canned broth that is sold in the grocery store to make it. It didn't come out good, it lacked flavor and was too watery.

The only way to get pho right is to make the broth from scratch with a whole chicken or whatever meat you're using.

By summing — On Oct 13, 2012

@backdraft - I can understand your frustration. I think the secret is in the broth. Without a good broth, pho is nothing. So concentrate all your efforts there. If you can get the broth down, the rest of the pho will come together magically, trust me.

By backdraft — On Oct 12, 2012

Pho has to be one of my all time favorite foods. It is so simple, but yet so rich and complex.

But I have always struggled to make it myself. Even when I find a good recipe something does not translate. This is frustrating but not a disaster because there are tons of Vietnamese restaurants close to where I live.

By anon218725 — On Sep 30, 2011

Pho is Pho. It's not just beef noodle soup. We Vietnamese have many other beef noodle soups which are not Pho.

By anon107340 — On Aug 29, 2010

All I can say is that I am hungry again. I have to try this Pho. Let me browse for a Vietnamese restaurant. Bye!

By anon32780 — On May 27, 2009

AuthorSheriC is right, period.

By LittleBabe — On May 15, 2009

To Anon4527.

Contrary to what you were told, when you say Pho, you mean the soup itself, and not the noodle as you have written.

I am Vietnamese, and when I go to a restaurant, I ask for Pho. That is a soup, which consists of the Pho noodles, varieties of meat, beef or chicken broth etc..

When we say that we eat Pho, we mean the soup.

If you ask someone: "Would you like some Pho?"

They know that you are asking if they want some soup, and not just the noodles.

By AuthorSheriC — On Mar 14, 2008

Pho does refer to a noodle soup. In Vietnamese, Pho bo means beef noodle soup and pho ga means chicken noodle soup. Banh pho refers to the rice noodle itself and sometimes also to the soup as in Banh Pho Bo which means beef noodle soup.

By anon4527 — On Oct 21, 2007

Pho actually refers to the noodle and not the soup. Pho noodles, which are broad and flat, can be found in a variety of Vietnamese dishes.

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