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Feb 28, 2006 06:40 PM

Pho subtleties: northern vs southern

  • a

A post on the SF board asks the following question that I'm taking to the General Board:

Could you enlighten us enthusiastic pho newbies as to the diffs between northern and southern style pho? Is it the broth? The type of noodles? The meat garnishes offered? The veg plate garnishes offered? Chowish minds want to know.

I don't purport to be any expert on pho. My parents are from the north so I grew up eating nothern style pho, or pho bac. Lately I've been in a pho phase and have tried 4 different pho houses over the past couple weeks, so I've been thinking a lot about how pho differs from place to place.

To me, I think pho bac is more about how well a simple beef broth can taste supremely delicious, and southern style pho or pho nam is more about what you add to the pho to make it a complex whirl of tastes and fragrances.

So a good pho bac is so good you don't want to add any of the garnishes to it except a couple drops of lime and a tiny splash of nuoc mam (fish sauce), at the table of course. But a good pho nam is the interplay of the broth with the perfume of the herbs and the texture of the sprouts and onions.

I've got other thoughts but I wanted to know what others have to say about this. I also found a very interesting and well-written ode to pho posted in 2004 (link below).


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  1. As I've understood it as well

    >> To me, I think pho bac is more about how well a simple beef broth can taste supremely delicious, and southern style pho or pho nam is more about what you add to the pho to make it a complex whirl of tastes and fragrances.

    1. I generally agree w/ your statements, Alice. I think I grew up w/ more of a northern version since my mom grew up in Hanoi, although she spent her adult years in the south (where my dad is from). We don't use many garnishes, and I don't add much Sriracha, if at all. My father, OTOH, has always doused his pho in hot sauce and loaded it w/ toppings. It's hard to parse out personal preference and regional influence though.

      Based on my visit to Vietnam several years back, I noticed that more of the astringent leafy herbs accompanied pho in the south whereas northern pho was all about the broth, baby. I found the pho in the south to be more concentrated in flavor, heavier on the palate, and maybe even a little more oily. I will never forget slurping pho ga on a cool night in Dalat, as well as the duck and beef pho we had in Hanoi. Mine will never, ever taste that good at home...

      1. l
        Lowcountry Jon

        I've wondered about this myself. Here in the southeast US, where there is a large Vietnamese population (especially in Charlotte), I've been trying various pho places for 10 years now. As I've sampled wide ranging variations, I've wondered if the differences are north vs. south or something else. My favorite versions of pho are very balanced: sweet, salty, sour (once you add a little lime), and spicy all at the same time, with no one aspect dominating. Other versions I've sampled (and not liked as well) have been predominately salty, with no sweetness at all. Strangely, I've sometimes been served lemon with these salty versions instead of lime. On one such occasion, when I requested lime instead, I was brought out a plate full of ... more lemon wedges! From some reading I've done, I've suspected that these versions might be northern-style, since the importance of garnishes apparently arose in the south. I admit this assumption may be totally off-base, however. I would also be interested in further comments.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Lowcountry Jon

          Whenever I am having dinner at the home of Vietnamese friends from Da Nang and Saigon and they serve pho, I am always horrified when everyone else at the table pours lots of hoi sin sauce into their bowl.

          1. re: Richard
            Lowcountry Jon

            I don't add hoisin sauce to pho, but I'm curious what makes the style of pho I like slightly sweet. Is hoisin already added to the broth? Sugar? Or is it just the natural sweetness from the charred ginger, star anise, etc.?

            1. re: Lowcountry Jon

              The pho broth recipe in my family includes a pinch of sugar and a little wonton soup base which contains MSG.

        2. Discussions again about Northern / Southern pho on the SF board, brought up this great article in the SF Chronicle. Though it is about a SF Pho crawl, it has lots of good info about the differences between Northern & Southern style as well as what makes good and bad pho.

          1. Is pho originally Northern? I've seen it on French-language menus as soupe Tonkinoise.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Peter Cherches

              That's what they call Indochine-style soup in quebec at the non-Asian restaurants I went to. In Paris it's just called pho.

              1. re: Peter Cherches

                Here's a link to an article, originally published in the San Jose Mercury, that sheds more light on its origins in the North and evolution in the South.