What is pho? A glance at the highlights from origins to varieties

What is pho

Embarking on a Vietnam travel journey takes you through stunning landscapes, rich heritage, and irresistible cuisine. Among the many famous Vietnamese foods, pho has gained global recognition. In this article, we will address the basics of what is pho, its popular types and variations, and where to savor its best flavor.

1. What is pho in general? What is pho made of?

Before delving into what is pho, let’s first find out where is pho from. This beloved Vietnamese national dish has a fascinating history. It originated as a popular street food among the working class, sold from mobile food stalls known as “ganh.” These vendors carried two large baskets – one filled with flavorful broth and the other with rice noodles, meat, and fresh herbs. Over time, Pho gained widespread popularity, spreading to various locations starting from the 1950s. Today, it has become an integral part of Vietnamese cuisine that can be found in every nook and cranny, from humble home kitchens to upscale restaurants.

Pho holds great significance in Vietnamese culture, symbolizing family, community, and tradition. Many families come together around steaming bowls of pho during special occasions like Tet (Lunar New Year), weddings, and ancestral worship ceremonies. It also plays a role in religious rituals, where it is customary in many Vietnamese households to offer a bowl of pho on the ancestral altar as a sign of respect and to honor family traditions. Furthermore, pho embodies the Vietnamese value of hospitality, with hosts often generously serving homemade pho as a welcoming gesture to guests. 

What is pho

So, what does pho taste like? Pho is often described as a “symphony of flavors” by food enthusiasts, with its essence lying in the meticulously prepared broth. Then, what is pho broth made of? Traditionally, the broth is created by simmering beef bones or chicken for several hours, infusing it with spices like star anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, and cardamom. This slow-cooking process allows the broth to absorb all the flavors, resulting in a rich, fragrant, and aromatic base that forms the foundation of pho’s taste. 

The rice noodles, known as “banh pho,” are another essential part of pho. These soft and slightly Vietnamese noodles are made from rice flour. Before adding them to the bowl, they are blanched in boiling water to achieve the perfect texture. For beef pho, thinly sliced beef is added, while chicken pho features shredded chicken. A complete bowl of pho is traditionally served with an array of fresh herbs and other toppings, allowing diners to customize their experience. Common accompaniments include bean sprouts, Thai basil, cilantro, lime wedges, sliced chili peppers, and chili garlic vinegar. These additions enhance the flavors and provide a burst of freshness to each bite.

What is pho

>>> Check out 12 of the most famous Vietnamese foods to indulge in on your upcoming trip to Vietnam!

2. Popular types of pho soup to try in Vietnam

In Vietnam, you can delight in a variety of delectable options when it comes to pho. Two widely enjoyed types of pho soup are pho bo (beef pho) and pho ga (chicken pho).

2.1. What is pho bo (beef pho)?

Pho bo, also known as beef pho, is an iconic Vietnamese noodle soup known for its rich broth. This dish consists of a bowl of steaming beef broth accompanied by tender rice noodles and various cuts of beef. Pho bo offers a range of delicious options to suit different tastes. Some popular variations include “pho tai”, featuring thinly sliced medium-rare steak; “pho chin,” with steamed lean beef; “pho nam,” combining steamed half-lean and half-fatty beef; “pho gau bo,” showcasing steamed fatty beef; and “pho sot vang,” which includes a Vietnamese version of Bordelaise sauce with beef tendon. Garnished with chopped ginger, scallion, yellow onions, and cilantros, Vietnamese beef noodle allows diners to customize their bowl to their preferences. 

What is pho

2.2. What is pho ga (chicken pho)?

For those who prefer poultry, pho ga, or chicken pho, offers a delightful alternative. This variation features a fragrant chicken broth that is simmered with aromatic spices, creating a light yet flavorful base. The rice noodles, similar to the ones used in beef pho, provide a satisfying chewiness. The star of pho ga is the tender and succulent chicken meat, which can be shredded or served in slices. The broth is often garnished with chopped scallion, thinly sliced lime leaves, and lime wedges, adding freshness to the dish. Pho ga is a comforting option that showcases the versatility of pho soup beyond beef.

What is pho

>>> Check out the Vietnam food list with 20 must-try dishes once you are in Vietnam!

3. Different variations of pho beyond soup

Beyond the traditional soup, there are other exciting variations of pho available, each offering unique flavors:

3.1. Pho rolls (pho cuon)

Pho rolls, or pho cuon, are an enticing twist on the traditional pho soup. Instead of being served in a bowl, pho cuon features the same ingredients as pho, such as stir-fried beef, herbs, and bean sprouts, but they are wrapped in fresh rice paper rolls. These rolls are then enjoyed by being dipped into a tangy sauce and accompanied by pickled vegetables, resulting in a simple yet irresistible dish. To ensure the best flavor, pho cuon is often prepared freshly to maintain its moist texture.

What is pho

3.2. Mixed pho (pho tron)

What is pho tron, or mixed pho? This dish is created by taking the components of pho and combining them in a unique way. Unlike the traditional soup-based pho, pho tron is a dry dish that resembles a flavorful salad. It features marinated and browned meat (such as beef or chicken), rice noodles, fresh greens (such as mint, Thai basil, lettuce, and cilantro), fried shallots, and a dressing made with vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, and tamarind paste. This noodle salad is often served with chopped peanuts, red chili peppers, and lime wedges.

What is pho

3.3. Stir-fried pho (pho xao)

Stir-fried pho, also known as pho xao, puts a flavorful twist on the traditional pho dish. While still featuring rice noodles and beef as its main ingredients, pho xao incorporates additional vegetables to add freshness and reduce heaviness. The rice noodles are stir-fried separately to maintain their texture and aroma, while the vegetables and meat are cooked over high heat to achieve a tempting crunch. Some variations may include a sauce to enhance the flavor and create a softer texture. Served with a tangy dipping sauce and pickled vegetables on the side, stir-fried pho offers a delicious alternative to the traditional pho.

What is pho

3.4. Sour pho (pho chua)

Pho chua is a variation commonly found in northern mountainous provinces such as Lao Cai, Lang Son, and Ha Giang. The ingredients for pho chua vary depending on the locality. It can include roasted black pork, eggs, beef, peanuts, cucumbers, pickled cabbage, and more. So, what is pho chua’s highlight? It is the sour broth that sets pho chua apart, with unique preparations in each province. For example, pho Sapa features a sour broth made with pork bones, beef, shiitake mushrooms, spices, cilantro, basil, onions, lime, chili, and garlic. This broth adds a refreshing zest that complements the richness of the meat and the freshness of the herbs and vegetables, resulting in a wonderful combination of flavors.

What is pho

4. What is pho served with?

If you are wondering what is pho’s accompaniment, you will discover a variety of additions that elevate its flavors:

4.1. Fried dough stick

Pho is often served with fried dough sticks, known as “quay,” an irresistibly enticing dish made by frying dough in oil. These hot and crispy quay sticks are placed in the bowl of pho, where they absorb the flavorful broth and become soft. Enjoying pho with quay adds a satisfying element to the experience, and some people even use quay as a substitute for pho noodles themselves.

4.2. Chili garlic vinegar

What is pho paired with? Another common condiment to complement pho is chili garlic vinegar. This spicy vinegar-based sauce adds a kick of heat and a burst of flavor to the soup. You can drizzle or spoon this sauce over your pho to enhance the taste.

4.3. Vegetables

Pho is also served with a plate of fresh Vietnamese vegetables on the side. This includes scallions, onions, bean sprouts, Thai basil leaves, and lime wedges. These vegetables add a refreshing element to the dish, allowing diners to customize their pho.

4.4. Chili sauce and ketchup

Another popular addition to pho is the combination of chili sauce and ketchup. This condiment duo offers a balance of sweet and spicy flavors. To elevate the overall taste profile of the dish, you can mix these sauces together or drizzle them separately over your pho. 

What is pho

>>> Discover how to cook pho noodles to enjoy a delicious bowl of pho right at home!

5. Where to eat pho for the best flavor?

Pho can be savored in every destination across Vietnam, with each region offering its own distinct flavor. From the lively streets of Hanoi to the vibrant city of Ho Chi Minh, numerous pho eateries have gained recognition for their exceptional taste. 

Here are some famous establishments for your reference:

  • Pho Thin Hanoi (13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi): Pho Thin has been a famous dining establishment in Hanoi for over 30 years. Despite its limited menu featuring only two main dishes, namely pho bo tai lan (stir-fried rare beef pho) and pho bo sot vang (pho with beef in red wine sauce), the authentic flavors make it stand out. Its quality has garnered international attention, with coverage from CNN, Reuters, The Culture Trip, and even television channels like SBS and Nat Geo.
  • Pho Ly Quoc Su (10 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi): Pho Ly Quoc Su is an absolute must-visit when it comes to the best pho in Hanoi. Recognized by The Culture Trip as one of the top six places to try pho in the city, it offers a slightly yellowish broth simmered from various bones, creating a naturally sweet flavor. The perfectly cooked pho noodles and a variety of toppings elevate the dining experience.
  • Pho Bat Dan (49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi): Pho Bat Dan is renowned as one of the most popular pho establishments in Hanoi. Praised by CNN as a unique culinary destination, it features a clear and mildly sweet broth simmered for hours from bones, combined with soft and fresh pho noodles. Adding pickled garlic and chili enhances the taste even further.
  • Pho 2000 (210 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City): Pho 2000 is a prominent family-run restaurant located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. It gained international recognition when former US President Bill Clinton enjoyed their pho during his visit in 2000. Known for its traditional beef pho, Pho 2000 also offers seafood pho, which includes high-quality seafood such as squid, clam, and shrimp.
  • Pho Dau (288 M1 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City): Pho Dau is a small eatery preferred by Northern people living in Ho Chi Minh City. With over 60 years of experience, this restaurant serves well-done flank beef pho, which is its signature dish. The flavors capture the essence of Hanoi-style pho.
  • Pho Le (413-415 Nguyen Trai Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City): Established in 1950, Pho Le is known for serving authentic Southern pho that suits the Saigonese taste. If you are curious about what is Pho Le’s key trait, it is the flavorful broth made from cow’s bones and infused with cinnamon, cumin, and cilantro. The result is a bowl of pho that is both delicious and satisfying.

What is pho

This article has provided insights into the world of pho, covering the basics of what is pho and exploring its popular soup and non-soup variations. Whether you are a pho enthusiast or new to Vietnamese cuisine, the captivating flavors of pho are bound to tantalize your taste buds and leave you yearning for more. So, make sure to indulge in this dish whenever you visit the beautiful S-shaped country!

Vietnam is not only famous for its iconic pho but also offers a culinary paradise for food enthusiasts, with a plethora of mouth-watering dishes waiting to be explored. In Hanoi, the world-famous banh mi is a must-try, while Ha Long tempts visitors with its fresh seafood delights. Hoi An entices with its flavorful cao lau noodles, Nha Trang boasts tantalizing seafood options, and Ho Chi Minh City is renowned for its broken rice dishes. Phu Quoc is known for serving succulent grilled oysters, adding to the diverse gastronomic experiences in this country.

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What is pho

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