What is Pho?

I’m a guy who loves to travel, and when I travel, I normally do it MY WAY. Just like Frank Sinatra would appreciate, I hit up Vegas a couple times per year, and I do it the way it’s supposed to be done. Today I’m going to share with you one of my biggest Las Vegas hangover cures. It’s called Pho Noodle Soup. But let’s digress – what is pho?

What is Pho Noodle Soup?

Pho Noodle soup

In Vietnam, like Las Vegas, you’ll find this magical dish being served morning and evening. This dish is known as Pho. At first glance, it looks quite ordinary, due to its simple appearance. It has meat, noodles and broth, what’s so special about that? To explain the complex layers that go into making this dish, is not simple to explain. Pho, although widely available, is still Vietnam’s most treasured meal as it holds more than just taste, it holds history.

In every slice of beef, every stalk of bean sprout, and rich spicy broth, is the taste of history. It’s light and delicate in nature, yet still an extremely fulfilling and hearty meal.

People from all walks of life consume this soupy dish. Upper class, middle class, and of course, lower class.

As mentioned before, the complexity runs much deeper than it being noodle soup. Speaking traditionally, it had a few staple ingredients that are necessary to make the dish what it is. The rice noodles make the base for the dish, flavored by the rich broth that is cooked and simmered for a minimum for three hours before being added in, portion by portion to cook the thinly sliced beef. For garnish, cilantro and basil are usually used to add flavor. For a bit of chew and crunch, textures of bean sprouts, hot chiles, and even tangy lime are added to give an extra kick and bring the dish together.

The History of Pho

The story of how pho originated is still cloaked under the mist of lost history but many historians believed that it came about sometime in the 20th century in the north of Vietnam. Many have claimed that it originated during the colonization of Vietnam, under the French dictatorship rule. The word “Pho” itself was influenced by the French language. It is known as word play around the dish “pot au feu”. The word “feu’s” pronunciation influenced “Pho”. Pot au feu literally stands for “pot on fire”, which signifies the long hours of broth boiling and simmering. The beef bones’ marrow, are the main source of thickening for the broth, as is in pho. The bones infuse the broth, and after they have boiled, the scum, foam and bones are removed and discarded. What makes it similar to the preparation of pot au feu, is the fact that ginger and onion are stilled charred on open flame and added to the dish. What set it apart from the French dish are the unique and local toppings. Pot au feu uses vegetables such as carrots and turnips whereas pho uses bean sprouts herbs.

Pho can be seen as a breakfast dish as it is very commonplace but this does not mean that it is not customizable. The toppings can be of chicken as well, although that does not compare to the sweet yet savory taste of beef marrow. It slowly bubbles into the broth, making a spicy concoction. It is a noodle dish, as opposed to it being a soupy dish. It’s unique due to its rice noodles. No two sellers of pho will make the same tasting dish, as each chef will add their own preferences of herbs and spices. Some like to take a distinct route and add cinnamon, star anise and cloves for aroma and flavor. Many chefs inspired by the French still add ginger and fish sauce to add kick to the flavor. It also depends on the differences of regions. Pho bac or pho nam, are both pho dishes that are particular to their own respective regions.

Where pho bac is more simple and reserved, pho nam is liberal. Pho bac goes back years to when the northern regions of Vietnam did not have food as a luxury. The food items are scarcer in the northern area as opposed to the south, as they are more inclined to gather what ingredients they can find. The name pho bac originated under the dictatorship of the French. They French elites would discard beef bones after they were done, and the Vietnamese would use these scraps to make their own pho. It has lightness to it, yet it has intensity. The spices such as the star anise are used as luxury, to be subtle undertones rather than strong flavor. Pho bac contains the traditional components such a s rice noodles, heavy broth cooked slowly and carefully, and the thinly sliced pieces of beef. Although it is not as fancy as the pho nam, it makes up for it in the flavor department.

Unlike in the north, South Vietnam is known for its thriving agriculture. The ingredients turn the dish around, making it more flavorful and luxurious. Herbs and spices are used generously, with lavish garnishes and extra veggies that make the experience more filling. Chefs in the southern region wholeheartedly experiment with tripe and chicken, sauces like hoisin and fish. This gives it more of a unique and flavorful experience. The dish in itself is quite easy to make. It may be hard to believe but a vegan friendly pho can also be prepared. It includes charred vegetables, tofu replacing chicken and beef as the main meaty product. Instead of using beef broth, vegetable stock can be used and cooked for a long time with various vegetables like, bok choy, broccoli and even mushrooms!

While this soup is high in sodium, other that that, it’s a very good dish to eat if you are looking to practice healthy living.

Having to spend a minimum of three hours stressing about the beef broth and preparing the whole meal, sounds like a lot of work. Here’s how you can ease that tension. Prepare the broth beforehand because guess what, it can be refrigerated for 5 days and kept frozen for 5 months. This makes it easier to prepare the dish whenever need be. He noodles can be prepped by being tossed in neutral tasting oil for 5 minutes. They can also be kept in the fridge for a maximum of a day. The beef on the other hand cannot be kept in the freezer for more than 24 hours, and should be used within that time period. To prepare the dish, simply thaw the components and combine them. Heat till they reach a satisfactory level, and serve.

I, for one, love going to places that are known for Pho. Stay tuned as I’ll have a full review of one of the absolute best places in Las Vegas to eat Pho, 24 hours per day!