Among all the Vietnamese dishes that came to the attention of the people in the western hemisphere, nothing else has received such tremendous acceptance as pho. Pho is considered as the national dish of Vietnam, and it has captured the fascination of so many people in the west because of its deceptive simplicity and its complex flavors. Although pho restaurants scattered in every Chinatown across the globe, it is still better to find cheap Vietnam fares and have a taste of the authentic Pho right in its hometown.
What is Pho?
Pho is famous for its delicately spiced broth, complex flavors, and fresh ingredients delight the palate and satisfy the appetite.
Generally, chopped scallion and cilantro are sprinkled on immediately before service. The remaining vegetables and herbs are brought to the table for individualized garnishing. Standard garnishes supplied with every bowl include bean sprouts, wedges of lime or lemon, Thai basil, scallion, cilantro, and, more rarely, saw leaf herb.
From the garnish tray, add a squeeze of lime juice. Add beansprouts to the soup, and a dash of chili sauce and fish sauce. Lastly, sprinkle it with coriander leaves, or mint leaves, or basil.
With your chopsticks, thrust deeply to the bottom of the bowl, lift the noodles above the surface and let the dressings you’ve added subsume into the body of the work.
A mixture of both chili sauce and fishing sauce should remain in a small dipping bowl on the side to enhance slices of meat and other trimmings as you eat. After booking cheap Vietnam fares and visiting this country, try this way of eating just as the local people!
How to Cook Pho
Vietnam’s signature dish appears simple: rice noodles swimming in broth, topped by a bit of meat and accompanied by a plate of garnishes like greens, sprouts, lime wedges and hot pepper slices. However, Pho becomes famous because of the complex layers of flavor created by the herbs and spices as well as the many textures created by the chewy rice noodles, the tender beef slices and the crunchy bean sprouts in the soup.
The deep and complex flavor mentioning above is the result of an elaborate preparation process. The secret of pho is in its long cooking time of 3-4 hours, extracting all the meaty, marrowy goodness from the beef bones. Huge pots are left to boil away all day, making the end-of-the-day bowls particularly gritty and delicious.
Origin of Pho
Pho was born in northern Vietnam during the mid-1880s, heavily influenced by the Chinese, who imported rice noodles and spices, and the French, who popularized the eating of red meat. Before the French colonized Vietnam, people didn’t eat much beef. More valuable for the fields than the dining table, water buffalo was strictly off the menu.
About the name of this dish, some say that the name comes from the Cantonese “phan,” also pointing to a broad rice noodle sold on the streets of Hanoi by Chinese immigrants. Others claim that the Vietnamese lover of a French officer attempted to make “pot-au-feu,” the classic, rustic French beef stew. She couldn’t quite get the flavors right, so she started adding local spices and voila, Vietnamese “feu” was born. “Pot au feu” literally means “pot on the fire,” signifying the long hours required to create the soup. Just another similarity that pot au feu shares with pho is the fact that ginger and onions are also roasted in an open flame before they are added to flavor the broth. Vegetables like carrots and turnips are used to top pot au feu. In pho, these vegetables are replaced by bean sprouts and herbs, with a little lime juice added in for taste.
Although no one can define which is the exact source for Pho’s name, what historians do agree on; however, is that pho got its start in and around Hanoi at the turn of the century.
Pho in Varieties
Pho Bac: Pho of the North
In northern Vietnam, Hanoi’s pho is as austere as a classic Burgundy. Pho Bac has an intense and delicate flavor that is entirely different from pho Nam, which is pho of the south. The focus of pho Bac is on the taste of its clear and simple broth. The star anise and other spices commonly used in pho serve as subtle undertones of flavor rather than complex layers. The main ingredients in pho Bac are the rice noodles and the thinly sliced rare beef cooked quickly in the hot broth. You would not find a bowl of pho Bac topped with the popular herbs and garnishing found in pho Nam or in pho outside of Vietnam.
Pho Nam: Pho of the South
Unlike in North Vietnam, food is rich and abundant in South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City’s pho is the garage wine of Vietnam’s scene, forgoing refinement for big flavors. This rich, cloudy soup is accompanied by a thicket of herbs and other ingredients. The Vietnamese of the south put their taste for the lavish on the frugal pho Bac to create the classic pho Nam. They put more spices in their pho than their northern counterparts. They experimented with other beef parts, and even used other ingredients such as chicken and tripe. They added bean sprouts and herb garnishing as topping on the soup. They were also very liberal about the use of chili sauce and fish sauce to flavor their pho.
The top restaurants for eating Pho in Vietnam
If you already found a cheap Vietnam fares, be ready for surprised when eating Pho in Hanoi. Ironically, Hanoi’s best pho shops are concentrated in the narrow, shop-crammed streets of the Old Quarter. What seems like the entire population buzzes by on scooters as customers slurp away at their soup. A visitor might shy away from the curbside restaurants, but they are open-air marvels of efficiency, ingenuity and mise en place: a line cook’s dream, where everything is set up in bowls, ready to put together in an instant.
This eatery, located alongside peaceful Lake Hoan Kiem, where innumerable Hanoians do their morning calisthenics, defines “hole in the wall” with its dark dining room, stainless-steel tabletops and wooden benches. But the broth is redolent of smoky ginger and the noodles absorb its flavor without becoming mushy. Opened in 1949, the shop is now run by the founder’s eldest son, who closely guards the family recipe. 61 Dinh Tien Hoang
Pho Gia Truyen
The big draw at this multi-generational establishment is the deep-colored broth, cooked in a fire pit in the alley adjacent to the kitchen. If the meter maids come by, half the restaurant clears out to move their illegally parked scooters. Inside, a cook with a cleaver makes quick work of the brisket and the pho is very northern-style—no plate of sprouts and leaves, just a tiny bucket of hot sauce and another of garlic-laced vinegar to emphasize the soup’s clean flavors. Come early—they usually sell out by 10 a.m. 49 Bat Dan, 84-9-2429-2236
If it weren’t for the tables full of people and the kitchen that starts inside and spills out onto the sidewalk, this Old Quarter spot, with white walls, stainless-steel surfaces and excellent beef, could be confused with a butcher shop. The broth is simple, elegant and clear, and the marbled brisket has a near-sweet flavor. 25 Hang Giay, 84-9-8401-7741
In Ho Chi Minh City:
An oldie and a goodie in a formerly Chinese section of District 5. The street and sidewalk here are flooded with pedestrians, merchants and scooters long into the night. The hand-molded beef balls are a highlight in what is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s best bowls of pho. 413-415 Nguyen Trai, 84-8-3923-4008
Pho Hoa Pasteur
Here, at the granddaddy of baroque goodness, a warren of rooms is opened up consecutively as the place fills up. Try the special—an extravaganza of tripe, beef balls, brisket, tendon and raw loin, to which you can add banana-leaf-wrapped pork sausages. The broth is rich, with a buttery texture from beef marrow. This is a feast in a bowl. 260C Pasteur, 84-8-3829-7943
“Pho for the President,” is the motto of the spot where Bill Clinton stopped for a bowl in 2000. While seafood pho may be a heresy, it’s also a mean dish, here served up in a McDonald’s-esque indoor dining room. Mr. Clinton managed to indulge in some serious soup while promoting reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam. 1-3 Phan Chu Trinh, 84-8-3822-4294
Pho Tau Bay
This truckers’ favorite in District 10 specializes in a version of beef pho with rare tenderloin and braised rib meat. When it’s busy—which is most of the time—clients eat at tables in the adjoining alley. Word is, the restaurant goes through some 200 pounds of beef a day. 433-435 Ly Thai To, 84-8-3834-5128
Book Vietnam fares and sample a steaming bowl of pho, one will understand why it remains a cherished tradition in its native homeland of Vietnam and why it rapidly is becoming a culinary phenomenon.