While recently traveling throughout Vietnam with some American chefs, it became pretty clear that there was a lot more going on with the local cuisine than the noodle soup, pho, that most Americans associate with the country. In short time I’ll go over dishes like cha ca — a turmeric-laced fish dish found only in Hanoi — and a steamed roll filled with eggs and minced pork served at breakfast time called banh cuon.
But before going into all of that, it’s crucial that I share with you a little local knowledge about that bowl of pho, a dish that is served primarily at breakfast time and remains a staple of the early-rising Vietnamese population. Pho is like cereal, Pop Tarts, oatmeal and scrambled egg. It’s how you start the day. In the mercilessly crowded cities, pho is typically taken at street stalls, where Vietnamese park their motorbikes before diving into a bowl. There are now several chains selling the stuff in relatively fancy environments (featuring air conditioning and professional waiters). Pho 24 is one of the largest. But the best pho peddlers have long lines and sell out by 11 a.m.
So now that you have some background, here is a little more information to keep in your back pocket the next time you find yourself in a Vietnamese restaurant — and likely ordering a steaming bowl of the stuff. And don’t worry, nobody will judge you if you’re eating pho at 9 p.m. Well, after reading this, you can be the one to judge.
1. There is much debate as to how you pronounce this Vietnamese noodle soup. Is it Fuh? Faux? Here’s a great story on the subject, detailing different regional dialects. With an attempt at being culturally sensitive, let me just say that going the fuh route might be the correct choice (there are northern and southern accents to take into account). I’ll let the people at NYC restaurant An Choi explain.
2. The term pho actually refers to the noodles, not the soup. There are hundreds of different soups found around Vietnam. But pho is made with pristine white rice flour noodles that are made daily and sold in markets. To me, the most stunning part about slurping pho in the motherland was the quality of the noodles. They were always tender with a nice body. They were like nothing I had ever had before.
3. But, really, everybody in Vietnam judges the pho by its broth. The herb and vegetables garnishes, which I will get to later, are available everywhere and always exceptionally fresh. The noodles are the bomb, which is also the norm. But a stall with a shitty broth reputation will just not stay open. A good pho broth is crystal clear, like a French consommé, and packs two punches. For pho bo (beef), there’s the underlying earthiness brought on by the long simmering of bones, oxtail and flank. For pho ga (chicken), the entire bird is used. The second component of the broth is spice and aromatics. In pho, cinnamon and star anise lead the charge, with assists from cloves and cardamom. One of the chefs I was traveling with pointed out fennel, but that was more subtle. Roasted and/or charred onions and ginger are the key vegetable components. It’s simply the standard. In the broth typically rests a minimal amount of meat (and sometimes tendon and meat or fish balls). Those are cooked individually, placed in a basket and thrust into a pot of boiling water for a couple seconds before finding their way into the soup.
4. The garnishes are what many people associate with pho. It’s oftentimes a ridiculous salad of herbs and vegetables that arrives to the table either piled in a separate basket, or floating atop the broth, noodles and cuts of meat. Understanding how these garnishes work is key to understanding pho. But, first, take a sip of the broth before messing with the mountain of greenery. In New York City, where I live and enjoy pho at places like Pho Bang, Tu Do and Pho Grand, I’ve witnessed people time after time go straight for the herbs without paying any notice to the broth. Sip the broth and savor the complexity. Appreciate the time that has gone into this pristine liquid.
5. Ok, back to the herbs and vegetables. Vietnam has a tropical climate, so all sorts of produce grows basically year-round. At the pho stall you will likely find baskets of Thai basil (sharp and biting) and bean sprouts (fresh and crunchy). Those two are a given. You may also find Thai chili peppers (crimson red with the heat to match), green onions (onion-y), coriander (also called cilantro, which you last found in that bowl of salsa) and culantro (not cilantro but a flat herb that is best described as having more bite and pepper than the often mistaken cilantro). For pho, herbs are best ripped up and sprinkled into the broth, as opposed to the entire leaf being submerged. The play between the bitter greens and the sweet-and-sour broth, with noodles playing their key role, is magic.
6. Lastly, the condiments. In New York, it’s common to find many sauces at the table (we are the people who brought ketchup and Horsey sauce to the world): Hoisin, sriracha and fish sauce will all be there, begging you for a squeeze or a splatter. In Vietnam, the sauces are less prominent. Please hear me out. Resist the urge to sauce your pho. As mentioned, when the broth is good, it’s something to be savored. So to blast it with these sweet and spicy flavors, before giving it a chance, is sort of criminal. My condiment policy with pho is similar to my condiment policy with hamburgers. The best don’t need it. At Shake Shack, it’s bun, beef, cheese. Done. The same should be the case with pho. And about the lime. Squeeze it in if needed. And if the broth is weak and watery, gussy it up. Hell, throw some ranch dressing in there if you want. Some pho broths suck and really need a boost. But the bottom line is that condiments are not a default. Remember that.
7. How to eat pho. I’m right-handed, so I’ll take you through my process. The bowl arrives. Plastic chopsticks in right hand, soup spoon in left. Sip the broth first (I stress this because it’s important) while you work the noodles with your chopsticks. It’s OK, even preferred, that you stick your face into the bowl while slurping. You get a hit of those aromatics while avoiding a messy splatter. Once the noodles are gone (they usually go first), raise the bowl to your lips with both hands and polish it off. This is not impolite. This is how you finish a bowl of pho — like a child would finish a bowl of Apple Jacks. Both are great in the morning.
Contributing Editor Matt Rodbard was traveling around Vietnam with four American chefs. The trip was organized by our friends at Red Boat Fish Sauce.
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