Some dishes stand as national prides. In Vietnam, pho is obviously one of them. That noodle soup, accompanied by slices of meat, can be found throughout the whole country but also abroad. Today, it may be the most popular Vietnamese dish.
In Vietnam, pho is a big deal. It is eaten from north to south and all day long. The recipe is quite simple but it definitely requires patience and some know-how. Pho contains rice noodles and beef meat, but also a very tasty broth that needs to simmer for a few hours to reveal its flavor. It is prepared with beef bones as long as spices that have been pan-roasted beforehand in small bags. Cardamom, coriander, star anise, cloves: they give an amazing taste to that delicious dish. Besides, the meat has to be thinly sliced. For that matter, many Vietnamese rather use frozen meat which is more convenient to cut. With the broth, another important feature of the pho recipe is the way the meat is cooked. Placed in the bottom of the bowl with the noodles, it is actually boiled by the hot broth poured on top of it. Therefore, though the broth can be prepared beforehand, pho can only be served upon request.
Pho bo, the beef version, may be the most common one in the world though a chicken recipe does exist, called pho ga. It is exactly the same except that the chicken meat can be cooked beforehand. Pho ap cho is a sautéed pho which contains beef meat and sometimes crispy noodles. Pho sot vang, whose name comes from French and means “wine sautéed,” is also prepared with beef. Whereas northern Vietnamese like eating pho without any fuss, meaning no herbs or anything, southern Vietnamese get kind of crazy on those herbs and usually put a lot of them on top of their soups. Therefore, in Saigon, pho is usually served with a plate containing coriander, Vietnamese basil, soy sprouts and lime. In the north, the broth is the main ingredient and pho only contains the basics.
No one really knows where pho comes from. The most widespread theory has it that it came from northern Vietnam but also from a very popular French dish called “pot-au-feu.” Some elements have people believe that this theory could actually be true. First, the two words have similar pronunciation. In Vietnamese, pho is pronounced “fuh,” exactly the same way the final part of “pot-au-feu” is said in French. Moreover, both recipes have common features such as beef meat and a broth in which beef bones long simmer. And finally, Hanoi, in the northern part of the country, was the capital city of French Indochina from 1902 to 1953. If pho has actual roots in French cuisine, then this also fits the northern origin of the dish.
If one acknowledges that theory, pho bac, meaning “north pho,” would have spread in the south of Vietnam after the country’s secession in 1954 and the Geneva Conference, and would have given birth to the southern version, namely pho nam. Northern Vietnamese would have indeed brought with them the recipe of their favorite dish. It would have been adjusted to the tropical climate in the south where herbs grow almost widely. But let’s not assume anything: nothing is clearly established regarding the origins of pho.
Today, pho can be found from north to south in Vietnam. Locals like eating it for breakfast. They sit down around a street-food stall on their way to work, and they order a pho, that is usually served quickly. Because it is one of the most popular dishes, it can be found at every corner, and costs about 25.000 VND (1€). In Saigon, the most famous pho restaurant may be Pho 2000 since it hosted US former president Bill Clinton during his trip to Vietnam in 2001.
Abroad, pho is definitely the most well-known Vietnamese dish. Dozens of restaurants specializing in pho open in the main Western cities. Vietnamese cuisine is appreciated everywhere in the world. But there’s only one way to get an authentic taste: travel to Vietnam and try one while there!