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Oct 15, 2008 07:35 AM

Pho. The good, the bad and the ugly.

We just got a Vietnamese Pho Restaurant in the area. I hear alot about it but I am pretty much just ignorant to it.

What is the correct pronounceation?

What is it, exactly? (I know its a soup based dish)

Anything I should avoid? Demand?


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  1. I know i'm pronouncing it wrong, but I usually call it pha or fuh.

    1. Pho (pronounced fuh) is a beef noodle soup that originated from Northern Vietnam. It has its origins in Chinese and possibly French cuisine. It's a soup of beef bones and meat, onion, ginger, and a spice profile of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, pepper, etc, similar to the chinese five spice profile. The then piping hot soup is filled with rice noodles and slices of rare beef and onion.

      The pho restaurants in America come with garnishes of thai basil, lime, bean sprouts, and sliced jalapeno peppers, and sometimes sawtooth coriander. Hoisin sauce, sriracha rooster sauce (asian chili sauce) and fish sauce are available at every table for adding extra flavor to your soup or dipping your meat into.

      You can order your pho with different types of meats and cuts from the chow. Such cuts available are beef tendon, tripe, well done- brisket, flank, fatty flank, vietnamese beef meatballs, etc.

      A select handful of people sometimes ask for the oil from the beef fat on the side to add to their soup for extra richness. Some people also ask for sliced white onions soaked in vinegar as a condiment on the side.

      If you're new to pho, I would just start out with regular pho tai, or pho with raw cuts of beef cooked in the soup, and eat it straight without condiments except for a few thai basil to appreciate the subtle flavors of the soup. Avoid restaurants that serve a soup that is cloudy, dark, or has overpowering spice aromas.

      Have fun!

      1. Tadaki hit most of the salient points about pho ("phuh"). A few additional:

        The stock is key. I use trimmed oxtail and beef shank, onions, carrot, ginger, clove, cinnamon, star anise, peppercorns - and don't forget - a bit of nuoc nam! The oxtail has to be blanched for 10 minutes, drained and rinsed off prior to making the stock involving a slow simmer for 4 hours (the last uncovered), skimming and straining, and leaving overnight for better integration of flavors. Serving is done by placing slices of raw beef (and cooked tripe, blood cake, and/or other meats), onion, spring onion, chiles, bean sprouts, and noodles in the bowl and ladeling over the hot, clear stock. Top with fresh herbs and a squeeze of lime juice.

        Pho is my favorite breakfast in Vietnam, and best eaten at low tables and chairs on the sidewalk with the cooking or assembly done in front of you. There you get a chioce of meats and noodles; the herbs and greens and jar of chopsticks and spoons and bottles of condiments are all on the table. The curbs are usually filled with people's bicycles and motorcycles.

        1. ~~What is the correct pronounceation?~~

          Fuh? As in "what the fu..?" Those of us who aren't used to tonal languages will never get it exactly right, but you can kind of fake the rising tone at the end by pretending it's a question. The word is borrowed from "pot a feu," so if you speak French, just say "feu" and be done with it.

          ~~What is it, exactly?~~

          Liquid gold, if it's done right. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, "this must be what angels taste like!" For more details, see preceding posts.

          ~~Anything I should avoid? Demand?~~

          If the broth is good, avoid messing it up with Sriracha and hoisin. Anything more than a spritz of lime juice just detracts from the experience. You may also want to avoid some of the more exotic meats (tripe, tendon, brisket fat, beef balls, etc.), at least at first. They provide great textural contrasts, but aren't totally accessible to many palates. As takadi indicated, pho tai is a good place to start - it's raw paper-thin slices of round steak that gently poach in the broth as you stir up the noodles.

          One thing that hasn't been addressed is technique. There's likely to be a mass of noodles in the bottom of the bowl, and they need to be loosened up. Stick your chopsticks in and wiggle them gently until you can pick up a few noodles at a time. Taste the broth, and give it a spritz of lime if you want. Tear up some herbs and sprinkle them over the top. Drop in a few bean sprouts if you like a little crunch. But don't dump the whole garnish plate in your bowl. The broth is the real focus here; don't overwhelm it. You can always add more vegetation to an individual bite if you decide you want it.

          Once everything is all set, hold the chopsticks in your right hand and the spoon in your left. Use the chopsticks to catch noodles and/or meat and convey them to your mouth or your spoon (your choice). If you put the solids in your spoon, dip it in the broth and slurp the whole mess up together. If you put them directly in your mouth, alternate with sips of broth from the spoon. As noted above, you can occasionally add a slice of chile, a few bean sprouts, or a little basil or ngo gai (saw-leaf herb) to the spoon if you want to change things up.

          Warning: good pho is habit forming. Proceed with caution.

          5 Replies
          1. re: alanbarnes

            Nice rendition of the facts, Mr. Barnes. Makes me hungry for a big bowl... even in this 90 degree weather.

            1. re: lynnlato

              If the Vietnamese can eat pho in 90 degree weather so can you!

              1. re: KTinNYC

                Good point, KT. I have some friends coming in this wknd for a visit. They are from a small PA town and have never experienced pho or other Vietnamese fare. I'm thinking that I just may have to steer them to a bowl of pho. :)

                1. re: KTinNYC

                  Correction. 90 degree, 95%+ humidity, no A/C ;)

              2. re: alanbarnes

                >>The word is borrowed from "pot a feu," so if you speak French, just say "feu" and be done with it.

                I think you may be right. In Laos, that dish is called "Feu" because Laos was also a French colony. Other Southeast Asian countries have similar noodle soups as well. If Vietnamese "Pho" originated in North Vietnam, then what about similar noodle soups in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, etc...?

                The Lao Feu noodle soup does not contain cinnamon and neither does the Thai-version of this noodle soup dish, but I believe Vietnamese Pho does contain cinnamon. I've never tried the Cambodian version of this soup.

                Some Vietnamese people have said that the word Pho is not derived from Feu (pot au feu). If some people are rejecting the French influence, then is it just a coincidence that the Lao soup is called "Feu" (exactly like the French spelling)? Both Laos and Vietnam were French colonies. If other countries have soups similar to the Vietnamese "Pho" soup, did this dish actually originate in North Vietnam? Or could it possibly be from France (or maybe even China because of the noodles)?

                I'm just curious and would love to hear all possible theories as to the invention of Feu/Pho/(and Thai or Khmer versions as well). Thanks!

              3. No bad. No ugly.
                It's all good!!