The right way to eat pho — from someone who’s ACTUALLY from Vietnam.
About a week ago, a white man from Philadelphia introduced the world to pho, a very popular Vietnamese noodle soup. Pho has only been around for a century, so I’m really glad that white people are finally catching up to things, just like cupping or adding raw eggs to ramen.
It sparked a whole debate about whether or not it’s proper to add hoisin sauce and sriracha into the soup, and left many people angry and confused. So as someone who is actually from Vietnam, I thought I’d set the record straight.
Before I begin, here’s a little fun fact about pho: it’s a breakfast food (Surprise!) Many restaurants in Vietnam open as early as 5am everyday, and pho is available until around 9:30–10am. So if you sleep till noon, you’re kinda SOL.
I grew up in the South, so the pho I know of might not be the same as what Northern people are familiar with, but it basically consists of rice noodles, cooked beef, tender, beef balls, raw beef, absolutely no peanuts (or dried onions, for the love of god!), and the broth, which is the make-or-break element of pho.
The pho broth is an art form of itself, and mastering the seasoning is an incredibly difficult feat. Like several other Vietnamese dishes, restaurant owners do not disclose their recipes, which run in their families for generations.
The broth takes a long time to make, usuallt up to 7–8 hours. It starts with boiling the meat bones in water in medium heat, until the hot water gets more flavorful. After that, ingredients like fish sauce, Hue’s ginger, onions, garlic, cinamon, amomum tsaoko, and many other traditional Vietnamese medicinal spices.
Lots of the broth ingredients are not available fresh in the United States. Browsing through the Vietnamese supermarkets, you will find several seasoning packages of pho broth, some in cube form, some in a pack of dried leaves, and, well, sometimes it comes in a can.
These seasoning packages reduce a lot of prep time when you make pho at home, which I have also done, and it’s likely the way that many Vietnamese restaurants create it. Even the rice noodles in pho are not fresh. Fresh rice noodles have a very, very soft texture that almost just melt in your mouth within seconds. The ones you get also come dried in a package.
So back to the question, “Does adding sriracha and hoisin sauce actually ruin pho?”
Maybe, if it’s an authentic place that has access to all the fresh Vietnamese medicinal ingredients with a very specific recipe of their own. There is a place in Vietnam called Pho Phu, a small pho business owned by a small humble family near my house growing up, and it remains my all-time favorite pho place in the world. The soup is so flavorful, the rice noodles are incredibly soft; the beef is sweet and tender. Everytime I go there, I drink all the broth, and get a second bowl.
But if you live in the United States, it’s very unlikely you’re gonna get anything remotely close to perfection, even from a Vietnamese owned business. Not to mention, ethic food in America has the tendency to be a little more bland, so it can adapt to a variety of palettes and tastes. Adding sriracha and hoisin sauce makes the already bland soup feel more like home, more like what it should be.
So next time when your pho comes, you add your veggies — bean sprouts and thai basil — into the soup. If you prefer something a little more sweet and spicy, you add hoisin sauce and sriracha, before squeezing them into a separate small plate to dip your meat in. If you like it bland, eat it as is. Basically, you do you.