It is impossible to visit Vietnam and not come across a bowl of Pho. This quintessential Vietnamese dish is more abundant throughout this country than 7 Eleven stores in Bangkok. Understanding the anatomy of Pho will make eating and enjoying this dish a more pleasurable experience.
Understanding the Dish
Essentially, Pho is a soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs (served as condiments), and meat. Although the name actually only refers to the noodles, and not the soup. While it is most commonly eaten for breakfast, it is a dish that is served all day in many places. It is unimaginable to be at a gastronomic venue in Vietnam, and not have Pho on the menu. But the best Pho is arguable tasted in establishments and street food stalls that serve the soup as its sole menu item. In Vietnam, it generally is available as a chicken or beef dish, and most “Pho places” will serve either one or the other.
Given the rich and intricate history of Vietnamese cuisine, Pho is a relative “newbie”, having originated in the early 1900s. While its detailed origins remain disputed, the dish stems from the northern part of the country. It was not until Vietnam’s partitioning in 1954 that Pho was introduced to the southern parts of the country as a result of mass migrations. Yet, there still are distinguishable variations between the northern Pho and the southern Pho (“Saigon Pho”). The noodles used in northern Pho are slightly wider, and the soup is served with considerably more green onions and less garnish options, while Saigon Pho traditionally has a sweeter broth and is served with bean sprouts.
Vietnamese tend to agree that the broth is the deciding factor in judging the whole dish’s quality. To achieve an acceptable quality, the broth is slow cooked for at least twelve hours. Different cuts of beef (in the case of Pho Bo) as well as beef bones lend it that distinctive earthy taste, while complementing spices and herbs such as cinnamon, star anise, roasted ginger and onions, coriander and fennel seeds, cloves (among other ingredients) complete a rich blend of flavors that have turned this dish into Vietnam’s acclaimed number one cultural export.
How to Eat
As aforementioned, many restaurants and food stalls specialize in Pho and will serve the dish with only one of the two popular proteins. Hence ordering this is as easy (or difficult) as correctly pronouncing its three-letter name (we simply lack the sounds in our alphabet to spell it phonetically).
Shortly after ordering, a big bowl of steamy and aromatic Pho will be placed on the table usually along with two smaller plates; one containing garnishes like green and white onions, Thai basil, bean sprouts, and cilantro, while a smaller plate or bowl will contain lime wedges, pepper, and fresh chili. Fish sauce, chili sauce, and hoisin sauce are usually already on the table.
True Pho connoisseurs argue that a perfected broth should not require any additional sauces after the soup is served. It definitely is advisable to taste the broth first before altering its flavor to make it spicier, sweeter, or saltier.
Next, the desired type and quantity of garnishes are added. Basil leaves are separated from their chewy stalks, the coriander is torn-up, and both are added into the bowl along with the fresh bean sprouts. There is no magic formula to achieve the right proportion. However, adding too many bean sprouts may not only instantly decrease the soup’s temperature, but may also somewhat distract from the broth’s balanced flavor.
After this is accomplished, both hands should serve a purpose until the meal is finished. I.e. spoon in one hand, chopsticks in the other. The noodles, along with the garnishes are usually consumed first. Here, hesitation to abandon western table manners is not advisable. To avoid soup splatter and to enjoy Pho as the locals do, it is acceptable, if not required, for the noodles to be slurped with the face hovering just a few inches over the bowl. Another method is to use the chopsticks to lift and place the noodles onto the spoon first. The latter method is a lot more frustrating for the unskilled, time-consuming, and likely to result in unwanted broth splatter. Once all the goodies are devoured, the bowl can be raised and the broth consumed just as one would do with milk in a bowl of cereal.
Travelers to Vietnam would be well-advised to try Pho in some of its varieties and become part of this cultural eating experience.