Jul 13 2014

Pho: A very brief primer

Published by at 11:07 am under Saigon street food


No dish is more identifiable in Vietnamese cuisine than the humble bowl of pho. Simple in delivery yet nuanced in preparation, no two bowls taste alike — unless you eat at Pho 24, considered by many as the McDonalds of Vietnam. Each region has their own take on the dish, while most individual pho restaurants have recipes that span generations. Whether it’s in the choice of noodle, broth or meat, each bowl reflects the cook who made it.

A steaming bowl of goodness.

A steaming bowl of goodness.

Origins of the noodle soup are hazy due to the many influences that shape Vietnamese cuisine. Francophiles claim the dish originates from pot-au-feu, a French beef stew, while others claim Cantonese roots, thanks to the presence of the noodles and Chinese spices. Either way, the dish is now quintessentially Vietnamese and the must-try dish for those travelling in the country.

Pho from the north (pho bac)  is heartier and more subtle in taste, which reflects somewhat the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of the region. Meat selection can be limited, with just one or two options available, and even garnishes are kept to more of a minimum. Whatever you do, don’t put too much stuff in the bowl as Hanoians may look down on you for it.

Pho nam (southern pho) is the polar opposite of its cousin in the north. While Hanoians stick to a strict regimen of beef and more beef for the broth, Saigonese will add in shaved dried squid or even chicken bones for a bit more oomph. Garnishes galore litter the table too, so you can personalise your pho experience.

Tucking in at Pho Hoa.

Tucking in at Pho Hoa.

Your basic bowl of pho always contains white rice noodles and sliced meat. Sliced white onion, sprigs of cilantro and chopped scallions are usually placed in the bowl as well. Once the dry ingredients are prepared, the steaming broth is ladled into the bowl and brought out to the awaiting customer.

While pho usually contains tai (thin sliced raw beef) or nam (cooked beef flank) for protein, the more adventurous types can order exotic fare such as gan (beef tendon), gau (fatty brisket), bo vien (beef meatballs), sach (tripe) or ve don (flank with cartilage). For a textural tour de force, order a pho thap cam or dac biet. Or try pho ga, which substitutes chicken, a version that makes for a lighter yet still flavourful meal.

Your typical southern garnish.

Your typical southern garnish.

An assortment of herbs to garnish your bowl of pho will be plated up on a table and usually left throughout the day for customers to pick through. In the north, expect a squirt bottle of not-too-sweet chilli sauce, Thai basil, sliced pickled garlic and chillies. Southerners add saw leaf, cilantro, mustard leaf, bean sprouts, lime, a sweeter chilli sauce and some hoisin sauce into the mix — some upscale pho restaurants even carry Sriracha!

If you’re lucky, the joint will have quay, a fried bread great for dipping in your broth. Just remember that you will be charged for each quay you eat.

While we recommend Pho Anh and Pho Hoa as places in Saigon to slurp a bowl of steaming goodness, if you are in Pham Ngu Lao, Pho Quynh makes a mean broth and doesn’t skimp on the meat.

In Hanoi, we suggest Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su.

And if you like pho, get more adventurous and try other kinds of soup.

Pho Quynh
323 Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
T: (08) 3836 8515
Open 24/7

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