Vietnamese Pho. When you discover how to pronounce it, and the correct way to eat it, you’ll understand why the locals here rave about it!
Pho originated in the early 20th century in the Hanoi area of northern Vietnam and is a kind of noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat. It is primarily served with either beef or chicken (although sometimes seafood, such as prawn, is used). Pho is a popular street food in Vietnam and the specialty of a number of restaurant chains around the world. Southern Vietnamese eat it for breakfast and occasionally lunch, whereas the more voracious northerners eat it at any time of day – and who can blame them?!
The Hanoi and Saigon styles of pho differ by the width noodles, sweetness of broth, and choice of herbs, and I am sure there is a lot of competition between these two great cities in the north/south divide over who serves the best variation of Vietnam’s national dish!
Pho is served in a bowl with a specific cut of white rice noodles in clear beef broth, with slim cuts of beef (steak, fatty flank, lean flank, brisket). Variations feature tendon, tripe, or meatballs in southern Vietnam. Chicken pho (pho ga) is made using the same spices as beef, but the broth is made using only chicken bones and meat, as well as some internal organs of the chicken, such as the heart, the undeveloped eggs and the gizzard.
The broth for beef pho (pho bo) is generally made by simmering beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, charred ginger and spices. For a more intense flavour, the bones may still have beef on them. Chicken bones also work and produce a similar broth. Seasonings (which are wrapped in cheesecloth), can include cinnamon, star anise, roasted ginger, or clove. The broth takes several hours to make. For chicken pho, only the meat and bones of the chicken are used in place of beef and beef bone. The remaining spices remain the same, but the charred ginger can be omitted, since its function in beef pho is to subdue the quite strong smell of beef.
I must say that pho ga is undoubtedly my favourite, as I like chicken with everything! Pho bo in Vietnam is a little too spicy for me – at least the ones I tried were. Sometimes I wondered about the food hygiene standards when you see the internal organs of the chicken being added to the broth, but I survived, so it must all been good stuff! Pho with prawns (pho do bien) is not something I have tried, as I am not sure I will enjoy the fishy-tasting broth!
Some of the meticulous Vietnamese cooks often roast ginger and onion over an open fire for about a minute before adding them to the stock, to bring out their full flavour. They also skim off all the impurities that float to the top while cooking; this is the key to a clear broth. Nước mắm (fish sauce) is added toward the end. All Vietnamese dishes are typically served with lots of vegetables, and various other accompaniments, such as dipping sauces, and a squeeze of lime or lemon juice; it may also be served with hoisin sauce.
I was always impressed with the queues in Hanoi as I was walking around the Old Quarter and elsewhere in the city. I thought that maybe one day I would come to Vietnam and start up my own pho café – it must be a great way to pull in the punters and earn money around here! I have never seen a pho café or restaurant empty in Vietnam, and it’s no wonder the Vietnamese consider pho their national dish!