The Many Faces of Pho
A steaming bowl of fragrant phở is thought to have almost magical properties — the ability to cure disease, soothe hangovers and restore the body’s balance.
Vietnam’s unofficial national dish is much loved, and widely traveled, available from Montreal to Melbourne and Moscow.
Phở is Vietnamese soul food, comfort food and often a Sunday morning ritual, when families gather to savor giant bowls of cinnamon and star anise-scented broth, soft rice noodles, slices of meat, onion, shallots and crunchy bean sprouts.
It’s a closely-kept Vietnamese secret that phở is more than just a noodle soup and a type of fresh rice noodle. There are many different types of phở, and some aren’t even soups.
Phở noodle soup originated from the north of Vietnam in the early 1900s, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. The origins of phở are murky (unlike the soup itself) and slightly controversial.
Before the French came to Vietnam, beef was rarely eaten by Vietnamese people. Water buffalo was much more common, and cheaper.
One version of the phở creation story is that a Chinese wandering vendor began collecting discarded beef bones from French households and reusing them to make a soup featuring thin flat rice noodles called “fun” or “fan” in Chinese. He sold the soup from gánh phở, baskets hanging from shoulder poles, keeping his wares hot with a little brazier (feu is French for “fire”).
Some say the word phở is derived from the Chinese name of the noodles, or a Chinese beef noodle soup called ngưu nhục phấn which was popular in the north of Vietnam. Others say it’s a corruption of the French word feu, or a local version of the French beef and vegetable dish called pot-au-feu (pot on the fire).
Another, more politically acceptable story — because you don’t want your national dish linked to your former oppressors — is that the soup originated in the villages of Vân Cù and Dao Cù in Nam Dinh Province north of Hanoi. (China ruled Vietnam for about 1,000 years and the French ruled for about 100 years.) According to this non-French, non-Chinese phở story, the original phở vendors wore felt hats known as mũ phở, and sold their soup from the handy gánh phở shoulder poles.
There’s also a story that phở evolved from a dish called xáo trâu, popular in the markets in Hanoi in the early 1900s. Xáo trâu was a water buffalo and noodle soup flavoured with onion, Vietnamese mint and starfruit.
Where ever it came from, the soup traveled south through central and south Vietnam. In the 70s and 80s phở left its country of origin, traveling across the seas with the Southern Vietnamese who fled Communist Vietnam’s economic hardship and political reprisals.
The Different Types of Pho
Phở Hà Nội (Hanoi-style pho)
Hanoi is the home of phở and in the north they keep it simple. The broth should be clear, with a thin layer of oil on top to give it a “silky” feel. The only accompaniments to the steaming bowl of soup are small dishes of bean sprouts, lime wedges and chopped chili.
Hanoians regard the original form of phở as a sophisticated dish. The broth should be clear and so full of flavor that nothing needs to be added. Hanoi phở cooks use more ginger and are more liberal with the salt than phở cooks in other parts of Vietnam. Hanoi phở noodles are also cut slightly fatter than Southern phở noodles.
Phở Sài Gòn (Saigon-style pho)
Southerners have “improved” on Hanoi-style phở with a range of condiments and baskets of fragrant fresh herbs. Of course, a Hanoian would say these vulgar and showy additions ruin the dish.
The main ingredients of Saigon-style phở are the same, although the broth is sweeter. (Southerners are famous in Vietnam for their sweet tooths!)
In the phở shops in Ho Chi Minh City, up to three kinds of chili sauce sit on the table to please the diner. There’s also sliced fresh chili, wedges of lime, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, pickled garlic, basil, spiky coriander/cilantro, rice paddy herb and a lemon-mint flavored herb known as Vietnamese balm.
Some Southerners like to prepare a dip of hoisin and chili sauce in a small dipping bowl to add flavor to the meat.
Phở Bò (beef pho)
The original and some say the best version of phở. There are many different types of beef phở, but on our Saigon Street Eats tours we recommend people start with phở tái. In this version, slivers of raw beef are placed in the bowl to be lightly cooked by the hot broth. This results in very tender meat.
For more advanced phở tasting, you can order tái nạm (a mix of cooked and raw beef), gầu (fatty brisket) and gân (tendon). Phở bò viên (pho with beef balls) isn’t a very common option in Vietnam. It can be found, but this version is much more popular in the US, Canada and Australia.
Phở Gà (chicken pho)
Phở gà is believed to have been invented in the 1930s when beef wasn’t sold in the markets in Vietnam on Mondays and Fridays.
This soup has a lighter, clearer broth than phở bò. It can be ordered as gà nạc (lean chicken), with slices of breast meat, or bình thường (normal), with chicken pieces of different texture, including some white breast meat, dark meat, skin and fat.
A less popular version of phở gà is lòng gà, which includes chicken gizzards.
Phở Cá (fish pho)
From necessity, Vietnamese people use local ingredients. In a country with 3,260 kilometers of coastline, there are many seaside towns where fresh fish is plentiful. So it seems only natural that fish phở is available in coastal areas.
Phở purists would argue that phở cá isn’t really pho at all. It’s bún cá made with flat phở noodles instead of thinner round bún noodles.
Fish phở is a very light dish, with a clear fish-based broth and no cinnamon or star anise.
Phở Mực (squid pho)
Squid phở is another version that some say isn’t really phở. Phở mực has a sweet pork broth, delicately flavored with ginger. The squid makes the broth cloudier than traditional forms of phở.
Adding phở herbs makes the dish taste decidedly phở-y. The squid should be melt-in-the-mouth tender. Don’t forget to use the tangy tamarind dipping sauce that’s served with this dish.
Phở Tíu (stir-fried pho with pork)
Phở tíu is a Hanoi dish with Chinese origins. It’s not a soup, rather noodles with a thick umami pork-based gravy, topped with slices of roast pork, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, peanuts, dried shallots and a dash of vinegar.
Phở Áp Chảo Gìon (crispy fried pho noodles with beef)
Phở noodles are double-fried to be crispy yet chewy in this dish (gìon means crispy). There is a certain art to juggling all the required steps: frying the fresh phở noodles into crispy cakes, then sauteing the beef slices, onion and marinade to make a meat and gravy mix.
The next step is to add slices of carrot, morning glory and shards of the crispy noodles.
The result should be a tasty beefy dish with a variety of textures of phở, some of which soak up the gravy.
Phở heo (pork pho)
Vast areas of Central Vietnam used to belong to the ancient Hindu Kingdom of Champa. The Cham are now scattered throughout Vietnam, one of 53 ethnic minority groups. The Cham who still live in Central Vietnam remain Hindu, and so don’t eat beef.
Pork phở has a mild pork bone-based broth and is usually served with a large chunk of boiled pork, instead of the thin slices of meat found in chicken and beef phở. Sliced chili, lime wedges and a modest basket of fresh herbs are served with pork phở, along with chili and hoisin sauce.
Phở Cuốn (pho rolls)
Phở cuốn may have been invented when someone couldn’t be bothered fetching enough water to make soup.
Phở noodles are usually made by cutting sheets of steamed rice-flour noodles, similar to sheets of lasagne, into strips. Some enterprising (or lazy) person decided to leave the sheets uncut and use them to wrap a selection of typical phở ingredients into a roll, similar to the Southern Vietnamese gỏi cuốn, known in various parts of the world as fresh rice paper rolls or summer rolls.
Gỏi cuốn contains pork, prawn, fresh bun noodles, cucumber and fresh herbs wrapped in very thin, almost transparent, rice paper.
The phở cuốn wrapper is thicker and the dish usually involves sauteed beef and fresh phở herbs. The variant pictured above contains pork, prawn and phở herbs, wrapped with phở noodle sheets colored with beetroot, gấc fruit and pumpkin.
Phở Chua (sour pho)
A specialty of the mountainous northern province of Lang Son, which borders China, phở chua is more of a warm noodle salad than a soup.
Fresh phở noodles are placed in a bowl, along with shredded chicken, a fried shrimp cake, a selection of offal, shredded morning glory, fresh herbs and roasted peanuts, and topped with a tangy tamarind sauce.
The pho burger was created as a monthly special by Relish & Sons burger joint in Ho Chi Minh City to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in April 2015. It’s proved so popular that it’s still on the menu more than a year later.
The pho burger bun is made from burger-shaped sections of fried phở noodles. The beef pattie is infused with the herbs and spices of traditional phở noodle soup. The burger also contains lettuce for crunch and a fried egg (because it’s a burger), sides of phở broth and a spicy hoisin sauce, as well as the usual Southern selection of phở herbs.
The Phở Cocktail
In 1972, folk singer Joan Baez recorded the sounds of the Vietnam-American war from her hotel room in Hanoi. Forty years later at the same hotel, a young Vietnamese phở-server-turned-bartender captured the flavors of the famous soup in a cocktail.
Pham Tien Tiep says his “Joan Baez” phở cocktail has the warmth of the singer’s voice as well all the flavors of Vietnam’s iconic noodle soup — cilantro, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon and chili. In further homage to Hanoi’s war-torn history, Tiep’s cocktail is made using a “bomb drop” method that sends burning alcohol down a “tree” containing phở spices.
The cocktail won Vietnam’s national bar-tending competition in 2012, making Tiep something of a national hero. He took his phở cocktail to two new ventures in Hanoi, the Mojito Bar and the Unicorn Pub, which both still serve the drink.
Phở Xào (stir-fried pho)
Phở noodles are flash-fried in a wok, then placed on a flat plate. The remainder of the ingredients — sliced beef (marinated in oyster sauce and sesame oil), carrot sticks, pok choi, sliced onions, bean sprouts and shallots — are stir-fried with light and dark soy sauce.
The stir-fried meat and vegetables are ladled onto the noodles, which are slightly firmer than soup phở noodles.
Phở Trộn (mixed pho)
Phở trộn differs from phở xào because only some of the ingredients are stir-fried.
Thin slices of beef are seared in a wok with bok choy and onion.
The meat and vegetables are then mixed with freshly boiled phở noodles, which should remain soft, not chewy, oily or crispy.
Phở Chay (vegetarian pho)
Phở chay is a vegetarian noodle soup, with the stock made with carrots and daikon radish.
Mushrooms, tofu and/or mock meat are used in place of meat, and the accompaniments depend on whether you’re eating phở chay in the north or in the south.
The one thing all these version of phở have in common — they’re all absolutely delicious. Well worth traveling to Vietnam to taste-test all the different types for yourself.