Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat.
Pho is a popular street food in Vietnam and the specialty of a number of restaurant chains around the world. It is primarily served with either beef or chicken.
Pho originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam, apparently 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.
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 indicusextract (cà cuống).
Phở tái, served with beef cooked rare, had been introduced by 1930. Chicken pho appeared in 1939, possibly because the 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 the South. 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, cilantro (ngò gai), cinnamon basil (húng quế), and Hoisin sauce (tương đen), 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, while street vendors were expected to use noodles made of imported potato flour.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese refugees brought photo many countries. Restaurants specializing in pho appeared in numerous Asian enclaves and Little Saigon, such as in Paris and in major cities in Canada, the United States, and Australia.
The word pho was added to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in 2007. Pho is listed at number 28 on “World’s 50 most delicious foods” compiled by CNN Go in 2011.
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 meals 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 sprout, and cilantro (coriander leaves) or cilantro. Fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and sriracha, a chili 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 (Thái/Asian basil), and tương đen (bean sauce/hoisin sauce), tương ớt (hot chili garlic sauce, e.g., Rooster sauce) appear to be innovations made by or introduced to the South.
Southerners eat pho for breakfast and occasionally lunch, whereas northerners eat pho at any time of day.
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). In some parts of the United States, fresh bánh phở is not widely available. Dried noodles called bánh phở khô are often used instead.