Phở or pho (pronounced variously as /fʌ/, /fə/, /fər/, or /foʊ/; Vietnamese: [fəː˧˩˧]) is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat, primarily served with either beef or chicken. Pho is a popular street food in Vietnam and the specialty of a number of restaurant chains around the world. Vietnamese people usually consume it at any time of day.
Pho originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam, and was popularized throughout the rest of the world by refugees after the Vietnam War. Because pho’s origins are poorly documented, there is significant disagreement over the cultural influences that led to its development in Vietnam, as well as the etymology of the word itself. The Hanoi and Saigon styles of pho differ by noodle width, sweetness of broth, and choice of herbs. A related noodle soup, bún bò Huế, is associated with Huế in central Vietnam.
Pho originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam, southeast of Hanoi in Nam Định Province, then a substantial textile market. The traditional home of pho is reputed to be the villages of Vân Cù and Dao Cù (or Giao Cù) in Đông Xuân commune, Nam Trực District, Nam Định Province. According to villagers, pho was eaten in Vân Cù long before the French colonial period when it was popularized.
Although it’s possible that dishes similar to pho existed in Nam Định prior, cultural historian and researcher Trịnh Quang Dũng believes that the popularization and origins of the modern pho stemmed from the intersection of several historical and cultural factors in the early 20th century. These includes the higher availability of beef due to French demand, which in turn produced beef bones that were purchased by Chinese workers to make into a dish similar to pho called “nguu nhuc phan”. The demand for this dish was initially the greatest with workers sourced from the provinces of Yunnan and Guangdong, who found affinity to the dish due to its similarities to that of their homeland, which eventually popularized and familiarized this dish with the general population.
Pho was originally sold at dawn and dusk by roaming street vendors, who shouldered mobile kitchens on carrying poles (gánh phở). From the pole hung two wooden cabinets, one housing a cauldron over a wood fire, the other storing noodles, spices, cookware, and space to prepare a bowl of pho. Pho vendors kept their heads warm with distinctive, disheveled felt hats called mũ phở.
Hanoi’s first two fixed pho stands were a Vietnamese-owned Cát Tường on Cầu Gỗ Street and a Chinese-owned stand in front of Bờ Hồ tram stop. They were joined in 1918 by two more on Quạt Row and Đồng Row. Around 1925, a Vân Cù villager named Vạn opened the first “Nam Định style” pho stand in Hanoi. Gánh phở declined in number around 1936–1946 in favor of stationary eateries.
In the late 1920s, various vendors experimented with húng lìu (a seasoning made of ground cinnamon, star anise, thảo quả, and clove), sesame oil, tofu, and even Lethocerus indicus extract (cà cuống). This “phở cải lương” failed to enter the mainstream.
Phở tái, served with beef cooked rare, had been introduced by 1930. Chicken pho appeared in 1939, possibly because beef was not sold at the markets on Mondays and Fridays at the time.
With the Partition of Vietnam in 1954, over a million people fled North Vietnam for South Vietnam. Pho, previously unpopular in the South, suddenly took off. No longer confined to northern culinary traditions, variations in meat and broth appeared, and additional garnishes, such as lime, bean sprouts, culantro (ngò gai), cinnamon basil (húng quế), Hoisin sauce (tương đen), and hot chili sauce (tương ớt) became standard fare. Phở tái also began to rival fully cooked phở chín in popularity.
Meanwhile, in North Vietnam, private pho restaurants were nationalized (mậu dịch quốc doanh) and began serving pho noodles made from old rice. Street vendors were forced to use noodles made of imported potato flour. Officially banned as capitalism, these vendors prized portability, carrying their wares on gánh and setting out plastic stools for customers.
Pho eateries were privatized as part of Đổi Mới. However, many street vendors must still maintain a light footprint to evade police enforcing the street tidiness rules that replaced the ban on private ownership.
A pho and bánh cuốn restaurant in Paris (author: besopha).
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese refugees brought pho to many countries. Restaurants specializing in pho appeared in numerous Asian enclaves and Little Saigons, such as in Paris and in major cities in the United States, Canada and Australia. In 1980, the first of hundreds of pho restaurants opened in the Little Saigon in Orange County, California.
In the United States, pho began to enter the mainstream during the 1990s, as relations between the U.S. and Vietnam improved. At that time Vietnamese restaurants began opening quickly in Texas and California, spreading rapidly along the Gulf and West Coasts, as well as the East Coast and the rest of the country. During the 2000s, pho restaurants in the United States generated US$500 million in annual revenue, according to an unofficial estimate. Pho can now be found in cafeterias at many college and corporate campuses, especially on the West Coast.
The word “pho” was added to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in 2007. Pho is listed at number 28 on “World’s 50 most delicious foods” compiled by CNN Go in 2011. It has been adopted by other Southeast Asian cuisines, including Hmong cuisine. It sometimes appears as “Phô” on menus in Australia.
Etymology and origins
Reviews of 19th and 20th century Indochinese literature have found that pho entered the mainstream sometime in the 1910s. Georges Dumoutier’s extensive 1907 account of Vietnamese cuisine omits any mention of pho, while Nguyễn Công Hoan recalls its sale by street vendors in 1913. A 1931 dictionary is the first to define phở as a soup: “from the word phấn. A dish consisting of small slices of rice cake boiled with beef.”
Possibly the earliest English-language reference to pho was in the book Recipes of All Nations, edited by Countess Morphy in 1935: In the book, pho is described as “an Annamese soup held in high esteem … made with beef, a veal bone, onions, a bayleaf, salt, and pepper, and a small teaspoon of nuoc-mam.”
There are two prevailing theories on the origin of the word phở and, by extension, the dish itself. As author Nguyễn Dư notes, both questions are significant to Vietnamese identity.
French settlers commonly ate beef, whereas Vietnamese traditionally ate pork and chicken and used cattle as beasts of burden.Gustave Hue (1937) equates cháo phở to the French beef stew pot-au-feu (literally, “pot on the fire”). Accordingly, Western sources generally maintain that phở is derived from pot-au-feu in both name and substance. However, various scholars dispute this etymology on the basis of the stark differences between the two dishes. Ironically, pho in French has long been pronounced [fo] rather than [fø] (it sounds more flat with Vietnamese): in Jean Tardieu‘s Lettre de Hanoï à Roger Martin Du Gard (1928), a soup vendor cries “Pho-ô!” in the street.
Many Hanoians explain that the word phở derives from French soldiers’ ordering “feu” (fire) from gánh phở, referring to both the steam rising from a bowl of pho and the wood fire seen glowing from a gánh phở in the evening.
Food historian Erica J. Peters argues that the French have embraced pho in a way that overlooks its origins as a local improvisation, reinforcing “an idea that the French brought modern ingenuity to a traditionalist Vietnam”.
Hue and Eugèn Gouin (1957) both define phở by itself as an abbreviation of lục phở. Elucidating on the 1931 dictionary, Gouin and Lê Ngọc Trụ (1970) both give lục phở as a corruption of ngưu nhục phấn (Chinese: 牛肉粉; Cantonese Yale: ngau4 yuk6 fan2; literally: “cow meat noodles”), which was commonly sold by Chinese immigrants in Hanoi.
Some scholars argue that pho (the dish) evolved from xáo trâu, a Vietnamese dish common in Hanoi at the turn of the century. Originally eaten by commoners near the Red River, it consisted of stir-fried strips of water buffalo meat served in broth atop rice vermicelli. Around 1908–1909, the shipping industry brought an influx of laborers. Vietnamese and Chinese cooks set up gánh to serve them xáo trâu but later switched to inexpensive scraps of beef set aside by butchers who sold to the French. Chinese vendors advertised this xáo bò by crying out, “Beef and noodles!” (Cantonese Yale: ngàuh yuhk fán; Vietnamese: ngưu nhục phấn). Eventually the street cry became “Meat and noodles!” (Chinese: 肉粉; Cantonese Yale: yuhk fán; Vietnamese: nhục phấn), with the last syllable elongated. Nguyễn Ngọc Bích suggests that the final “n” was eventually dropped because phấn could mean “excrement”. The French author Jean Marquet refers to the dish as “Yoc feu!” in his 1919 novel Du village-à-la cité. This is likely what the Vietnamese poet Tản Đà calls “nhục-phở” in “Đánh bạc” (“Gambling”), written around 1915–1917.
Ingredients and preparation
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 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 is generally made by simmering beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, charred ginger and spices. For a more intense flavor, the bones may still have beef on them. Chicken bones also work and produce a similar broth. Seasonings can include Saigon cinnamon or other kinds of cinnamon as alternatives (may use usually in stick form, sometimes in powder form in pho restaurant franchises overseas), star anise, roasted ginger, roasted onion, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed, and 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.
The spices, often wrapped in cheesecloth or soaking bag to prevent them from floating all over the pot, usually contain: clove, star anise, coriander seed, fennel, cinnamon, black cardamom, ginger and onion.
Careful 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 flavor. 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.
Several ingredients not generally served with pho may be ordered by request. Extra-fatty broth (nước béo) can be ordered and comes with scallions to sweeten it. A popular side dish ordered upon request is hành dấm, or vinegared white onions.
The several regional variants of pho in Vietnam, particularly divided between “northern pho” (phở bắc) and “southern pho” or “Saigon pho” (phở Sài Gòn). Northern pho tends to use somewhat wider noodles and much more green onion, and garnishes offered generally include only vinegar, fish sauce and chili sauce. On the other hand, southern Vietnamese pho broth is slightly sweeter and has bean sprouts and a greater variety of fresh herbs. Pho may be served with either pho noodles or kuy teav noodles (hủ tiếu). The variations in meat, broth, and additional garnishes such as lime, bean sprouts, ngò gai (Eryngium foetidum), húng quế (Thai/Asian basil), and tương đen (bean sauce/hoisin sauce), tương ớt (hot chili sauce, e.g., Sriracha sauce) appear to be innovations made by or introduced to the South.
International variants include pho made using tofu and vegetable broth for vegetarians (phở chay), and a larger variety of vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli.
Many pho restaurants in the United States offer oversized helpings with names such as “train pho” (phở xe lửa), “airplane pho” (phở tàu bay), or “California pho” (phở Ca Li). Some restaurants offer a pho eating challenge, with prizes for finishing as much as 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of pho in one sitting. In some parts of the United States, fresh bánh phở is not widely available. Dried noodles called bánh phở khô are often used instead. Some restaurants may serve bánh phở tươi (fresh pho noodles) upon request.
Before 1975, famous pho shops in Saigon included Phở Công Lý, Phở Tàu Bay, Phở Tàu Thủy, and Phở Bà Dậu. Pasteur Street (phố phở Pasteur) was a street famous for its beef pho, while Hien Vuong Street (phố phở Hiền Vương) was known for its chicken pho. At Phở Bình, American soldiers dined as Việt Cộng agents planned the Tết Offensive just upstairs. Nowadays in Ho Chi Minh City, well known restaurants include: Phở Hòa Pasteur and Phở 2000, which U.S. President Bill Clinton visited in 2000.
One of the largest restaurant chains in Vietnam is Pho 24, a subsidiary of Highlands Coffee, with 60 locations in Vietnam and 20 abroad. The largest pho chain in the United States is Phở Hòa, which operates over 70 locations in seven countries.
In 2011, Tiato in Santa Monica, California, auctioned off bowls of “AnQi Phở”, prepared with type A5 Wagyu beef, white truffles, foie gras broth, and noodles made of rare blue lobster meat, with a starting price of $5,000. Proceeds benefited Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.
Aside from pho, many other Vietnamese dishes make use of pho noodles, including stir-fried pho (phở xào), sauteed pho (phở áp chảo), pho spring roll (phở cuốn), and sour pho (phở chua). Other popular Vietnamese noodle dishes include bún riêu, bún bò Huế (another beef noodle soup), bún chả, hủ tiếu, bún thịt nướng, and mì Quảng.