Every country has at least one signature dish. A culinary speciality that’s evocative of a country’s rich cultural history. While it can be argued that poutine is Canada’s signature, Vietnam’s is pho (beef noodle soup). The dish dates back to the French occupation of Vietnam in the early 1900s, up until which time cattle were mainly used for labour and not as a source of meat. Resourceful chefs utilized this new ingredient, simmered down the remaining beef bones with oxtail, ginger, charred onions, and spices, and pho was born.
A bowl of pho is a beautiful marriage of tender rare beef slices, onions and flat rice noodles in an wonderfully rich and aromatic broth. It is often accompanied by fresh herbs, bean sprouts, spicy chili peppers and lime wedges. Striking in its simplicity yet complex in its depth of flavour, the playful interaction of salty, sweet, sour and savoury is something that is anything but simple to create.
For years we worked together in a pho house run by a no-nonsense all Vietnamese kitchen. We would spend countless hours creeping on our Vietnamese co-workers, annoyingly prodding them with questions about their eating habits. Having also completed a two month backpacking stint through Vietnam, we have become quite the pho connoisseurs over the years. Our connection to pho borderlines on obsessive, prompting compulsive runs to our favourite pho restaurant whenever cravings hit. Anyone who has ever indulged in this steaming bowl of goodness understands…it warms the soul. In this post we share all the insider info we have gathered through years of trial and error, so that anyone can enjoy this Vietnamese comfort food just like a local.
Pronounce it like a local.
Pho is pronounced “fuh” not “foe.” It helps to say “fuh?” as if you were asking a question. If you’re worried about butchering the pronunciation, stick with the numbers that line the menu items. That’s what they are there for!
Don’t be shy with the condiments.
While every pho joint varies, you’ll most likely find the usual suspects; hoisin sauce, (a sweet dark sauce made of soy beans), Sriracha (a spicy hot sauce of red chillies) and tangy Vietnamese fish sauce. These sauces can be directly added into a bowl of pho, or can be used as a side dip for the meat. If you feel like living dangerously, ask for some sate sauce (aka chili oil) on the side. A word of caution; this oil infused with crushed red Thai chili peppers, garlic and lemongrass is not for the faint of heart. It will bring on a fiery inferno that may cause your bowels to turn to jelly. Okay…maybe we’re laying it on a little thick. Fortunately what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger and one can build up a tolerance and learn to eat through the pain.
Become ambidextrous when eating.
The double fisting method of eating noodle soup is a practical eating technique that Asians have mastered. Hold your chopsticks in your dominant hand and your soup spoon in the other. This gives you the advantage of picking up noodles with your chopsticks and sipping the broth with your spoon. For those with minimal chopstick skills, the spoon also acts as a backup allowing you to to catch those slippery noodles that may escape.
Opt for darker clothing.
Slurping is a necessity when enjoying a nice hot bowl of pho. Once you throw in hoisin and Sriracha into the mix, collateral damage is inevitable. A white shirt is a rookie mistake most often made by naive businessmen new to the pho eating scene. We cannot tell you how many shirts we’ve seen ruined on account of the slurp factor. Short of fashioning a bib out of napkins, we suggest that you leave your whitest whites at home.
Use your garnishes!
A plate full of garnishes is normally the first thing to arrive at your table after you order a bowl of pho. We cringe at every customer who unknowingly eats the plate of bean sprouts and herbs as a salad. That is because every item on the plate has an intended purpose that heightens the flavour and aroma of the overall dish. Crunchy bean spouts create a wonderful contrast in texture. A squeeze of lime juice adds a sour tang to the broth that also cuts the fattiness of the beef. The cilantro and Thai basil when shredded by hand imparts an incredible taste and fragrance. Fresh Thai chilies when dropped into the soup release their oils and and kicks up the heat. Every person has their preferred formula. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different combinations as it’s all a part of the experience.
Order a cà phê sua dá to beat the heat.
Went a little crazy with the Sriracha? Extinguish the fire burning in your mouth by ordering a Vietnamese iced coffee or cà phê sua dá. This creamy iced coffee is sweetened with condensed milk, tastes like first love and is highly addictive! The coffee is very potent and often served in a slow drip filter. Be sure to order it at the beginning of your meal so that it is ready by the time you need it. Alternatively, tea which is often complimentary at pho houses also helps to alleviate the burn.
Armed with these tips, you’ll be eating pho like a pro in no time!
Where is your favourite place to get a nice bowl of pho? Post your answers below!