Phở or pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat, primarily served with either beef or chicken. Pho is a popular street food in Vietnam and the specialty of a number of restaurant chains around the world. Southern Vietnamese eat it for breakfast and occasionally lunch, whereas those from northern Vietnam consume it at any time of day.
Pho originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam, and was popularized throughout the rest of the world by refugees after the Vietnam War. Because pho’s origins are poorly documented, there is significant disagreement over the cultural influences that led to its development in Vietnam, as well as the etymology of the word itself. The Hanoi and Saigon styles of pho differ by noodle width, sweetness of broth, and choice of herbs. A related noodle soup, bún bò Huế, is associated with Huế in central Vietnam.
Pho originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam, southeast of Hanoi in Nam Định Province, then a substantial textile market. The traditional home of pho is reputed to be the villages of Vân Cù and Dao Cù (or Giao Cù) in Đông Xuân commune, Nam Trực District, Nam Định Province. According to villagers, pho was eaten in Vân Cù long before the French colonial period when it was popularized.
Pho was originally sold at dawn and dusk by roaming street vendors, who shouldered mobile kitchens on carrying poles (gánh phở). From the pole hung two wooden cabinets, one housing a cauldron over a wood fire, the other storing noodles, spices, cookware, and space to prepare a bowl of pho. Pho vendors kept their heads warm with distinctive, disheveled felt hats called mũ phở.
Hanoi’s first two fixed pho stands were a Vietnamese-owned Cát Tường on Cầu Gỗ Street and a Chinese-owned stand in front of Bờ Hồ tram stop. They were joined in 1918 by two more on Quạt Row and Đồng Row. Around 1925, a Vân Cù villager named Vạn opened the first “Nam Định style” pho stand in Hanoi. Gánh phở declined in number around 1936–1946 in favor of stationary eateries.
In the late 1920s, various vendors experimented with húng lìu (a seasoning made of ground cinnamon, star anise, thảo quả, and clove), sesame oil, tofu, and even Lethocerus indicus extract (cà cuống). This “phở cải lương” failed to enter the mainstream.
Phở tái, served with beef cooked rare, had been introduced by 1930. Chicken pho appeared in 1939, possibly because beef was not sold at the markets on Mondays and Fridays at the time.
With the Partition of Vietnam in 1954, over a million people fled North Vietnam for South Vietnam. Pho, previously unpopular in the South, suddenly took off. No longer confined to northern culinary traditions, variations in meat and broth appeared, and additional garnishes, such as lime, bean sprouts, culantro (ngò gai), cinnamon basil (húng quế), Hoisin sauce (tương đen), and hot chili sauce (tương ớt) became standard fare. Phở tái also began to rival fully cooked phở chín in popularity.
Meanwhile, in North Vietnam, private pho restaurants were nationalized (mậu dịch quốc doanh) and began serving pho noodles made from old rice. Street vendors were forced to use noodles made of imported potato flour. Officially banned as capitalism, these vendors prized portability, carrying their wares on gánh and setting out plastic stools for customers.
During the so-called “subsidy period” following the Vietnam War, state-owned pho eateries served a meatless variety of the dish known as “pilotless pho” (phở không người lái), in reference to the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned reconnaissance drones. The broth consisted of boiled water with MSG added for taste, as there were often shortages on various foodstuffs like meat and rice during that period. Bread or cold rice was often served as a side dish, leading to the present-day practice of dipping quẩy in pho.
Pho eateries were privatized as part of Đổi Mới. However, many street vendors must still maintain a light footprint to evade police enforcing the street tidiness rules that replaced the ban on private ownership.
Etymology and origins
Reviews of 19th and 20th century Indochinese literature have found that pho entered the mainstream sometime in the 1910s. Georges Dumoutier’s extensive 1907 account of Vietnamese cuisine omits any mention of pho, while Nguyễn Công Hoan recalls its sale by street vendors in 1913. A 1931 dictionary is the first to define phở as a soup: “from the word phấn. A dish consisting of small slices of rice cake boiled with beef.”
Possibly the earliest English-language reference to pho was in the book Recipes of All Nations, edited by Countess Morphy in 1935: In the book, pho is described as “an Annamese soup held in high esteem … made with beef, a veal bone, onions, a bayleaf, salt, and pepper, and a small teaspoon of nuoc-mam.”
There are two prevailing theories on the origin of the word phở and, by extension, the dish itself. As author Nguyễn Dư notes, both questions are significant to Vietnamese identity.
Ingredients and preparation
Pho is served in a bowl with a specific cut of white rice noodles in clear beef broth, with slim cuts of beef (steak, fatty flank, lean flank, brisket). Variations feature tendon, tripe, or meatballs in southern Vietnam. Chicken pho is made using the same spices as beef, but the broth is made using only chicken bones and meat, as well as some internal organs of the chicken, such as the heart, the undeveloped eggs and the gizzard.
The broth for beef pho is generally made by simmering beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, charred ginger and spices. For a more intense flavor, the bones may still have beef on them. Chicken bones also work and produce a similar broth. Seasonings can include Saigon cinnamon or other kinds of cinnamon as alternatives (may use usually in stick form, sometimes in powder form in pho restaurant franchises overseas), star anise, roasted ginger, roasted onion, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed, and clove. The broth takes several hours to make. For chicken pho, only the meat and bones of the chicken are used in place of beef and beef bone. The remaining spices remain the same, but the charred ginger can be omitted, since its function in beef pho is to subdue the quite strong smell of beef.
The spices, often wrapped in cheesecloth or soaking bag to prevent them from floating all over the pot, usually contain: clove, star anise, coriander seed, fennel, cinnamon, black cardamom, ginger and onion.
Careful cooks often roast ginger and onion over an open fire for about a minute before adding them to the stock, to bring out their full flavor. They also skim off all the impurities that float to the top while cooking; this is the key to a clear broth. Nước mắm (fish sauce) is added toward the end.
Vietnamese dishes are typically served with lots of greens, herbs, vegetables, and various other accompaniments, such as dipping sauces, hot and spicy pastes, and a squeeze of lime or lemon juice; it may also be served with hoisin sauce. The dish is garnished with ingredients such as green onions, white onions, Thai basil (not to be confused with sweet basil), fresh Thai chili peppers, lemon or lime wedges, bean sprouts, and cilantro (coriander leaves) or culantro. Fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and hot chili sauce (such as Sriracha sauce) may be added to taste as accompaniments.
Several ingredients not generally served with pho may be ordered by request. Extra-fatty broth (nước béo) can be ordered and comes with scallions to sweeten it. A popular side dish ordered upon request is hành dấm, or vinegared white onions.
The several regional variants of pho in Vietnam, particularly divided between “northern pho” (phở bắc) and “southern pho” or “Saigon pho” (phở Sài Gòn). Northern pho tends to use somewhat wider noodles and much more green onion, and garnishes offered generally include only vinegar, fish sauce and chili sauce. On the other hand, southern Vietnamese pho broth is slightly sweeter and has bean sprouts and a greater variety of fresh herbs. The variations in meat, broth, and additional garnishes such as lime, bean sprouts, ngò gai (Eryngium foetidum), húng quế (Thai/Asian basil), and tương đen (bean sauce/hoisin sauce), tương ớt (hot chili sauce, e.g., Sriracha sauce) appear to be innovations made by or introduced to the South.
International variants include pho made using tofu and vegetable broth for vegetarians (phở chay), and a larger variety of vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli.
Many pho restaurants in the United States offer oversized helpings with names such as “train pho” (phở xe lửa), “airplane pho” (phở tàu bay), or “California pho” (phở Ca Li). Some restaurants offer a pho eating challenge, with prizes for finishing as much as 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of pho in one sitting. In some parts of the United States, fresh bánh phở is not widely available. Dried noodles called bánh phở khô are often used instead. Some restaurants may serve bánh phở tươi (fresh pho noodles) upon request.