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What is Pho: Food History And Eating Instructions

Origins Of Pho 

First made in northern Vietnam at the start of the 20th century, then taken all over the world by refugees during the war, pho is an incredibly popular rice noodle soup. It is primarily served with broth, noodles, herbs, and beef – or occasionally chicken. 

Originally, militant street vendors would carry mobile kitchens across town on their gánh phở or carrying poles, serving soup to hungry workers at strict times in the morning and evening. If you missed them, you wouldn’t eat until the next day!

Their inventive portable cooking stations had two distinct cupboards. The first held a cauldron and a fire (which seems risky given everything was made of wood!) whilst a second was for all of their ingredients, seasonings, and cooking equipment.

In amongst all of that, they would prepare a bowl of pho one at a time for patient folks waiting hungrily: this was such a heavy setup that only men were considered strong enough to wield it at the time, wearing their homemade felt hats. 

When Vietnam was split with a north-south divide in 1954, more than one million natives fled from the top of the country to the bottom. Though previously unpopular there, pho swept the South to become one of its most favored dishes.

After this spread began, different takes on the dish began to pop up, without the feeling of having to conform to Northern traditions. From spicy chili sauces to mung bean sprouts and tofu, anything that sounded good was thrown in the pot.

Following the Vietnam War, of course, Vietnamese refugees began opening up pho restaurants in the Asian areas of towns in France, America, Australia, and Canada – it really hit the mainstream in the 1980s, steadily increasing throughout the 2000s.

Pho In The Modern Day 

vietnamese pho with spicy sriracha sauce shot top down

Now most commonly served at street food stalls, restaurants and homes across the country, it is believed by many to be the Vietnamese national dish. These days, you will also find pho restaurants increasingly across America and Europe, as well.

There remains some dispute regarding where pho actually originated, given the lack of physical evidence to prove who made that first tasty bowl or christened the dish “pho” in the first place. There was no social media in the early 1900s!

Both Hanoi and Saigon, north and south parts of Vietnam respectively, have their own style of pho, changing up the thickness of the noodle and which herbs are included, as well as how sweet the broth is.

It is served up in a bowl using very specific flat style rice noodles, swimming in a sea of clear beef broth. These are topped with thin beef cuts like steak, brisket and flank, though some restaurants might use tripe, meatballs or tendon instead.

Seasonings usually focus around cinnamon – either powder, stick or special Saigon cinnamon – combined with roasted onion and ginger, cardamom, coriander, fennel, cloves and star anise. 

Rather than adding them directly to the pot, they are placed in a soaking bag or some cheesecloth and submerged, preventing any unpleasant or unwanted bits from making their way into your broth. 

You would use the same seasoning for chicken pho, but the broth is made using chicken (bones and meat) and occasionally other organs like the gizzard and heart are also used for additional flavor. 

Garnishes in Vietnam tend to be green: onions, Thai basil and chili peppers, cilantro and bean sprouts. A generous squeeze of lemon or lime is usually given, and you might receive the option of sriracha, hoisin, or hot chili sauce to finish the dish.

How To Pronounce Pho Properly

Did you know that you could be saying the name of this delicious soup incorrectly? Most English speakers would presume it’s pronounced the same way you’d say the word foe, but that isn’t quite right.

It’s actually pronounced “fah” and would rhyme with la, which isn’t tricky at all to say! If you want to have a bowl of authentic pho on a visit to Vietnam, you should learn how to speak in a way natives will understand, as a mark of respect.

How To Eat Pho Correctly

woman eating pho with sriracha using chopsticks and spoon together

If you want to eat pho as a native Vietnamese citizen would, you don’t have to try too hard. Those who are familiar with using chopsticks already have a head start, and there’s not that much more to get your head around!

Taking a pair of chopsticks in your dominant hand and a soup spoon in the other, first take a sip of the broth and give your noodles a good wiggle around. You are encouraged to have a big old slurp straight from the bowl!

Enjoy a nice aromatic first taste and find out whether you’d like to add in any additional sauces for extra flavor. It’s considered impolite to do so without first trying the broth – after all, the chef has seasoned it especially for you already.

Once you’ve given everything a good stir, it’s time to chow down: first the meat, then the noodles and any accompanying veggies, although there isn’t a strict and official order in which to eat things. It’s just easier and less messy to go about it this way!

After all of the edible parts are gone, it’s time to drink down the broth. Yes, drink! Nobody’s forcing you, but it’s where the best flavor is, and there’s actually a lot of goodness in there – don’t miss out on all those nutrients! 

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Written by Ryan F.

Ryan is a Philadelphia local who enjoys checking out Philly's restaurant scene every chance he can. He grew up in South Jersey and now lives in Philadelphia's Point Breeze neighborhood. Ryan also enjoys traveling and checking out local eateries in every city he visits.