A Short History of Pho
Very much a part of the mythology and daily life of today’s Hanoians, (whether it be for breakfast or as a late night snack) the origins of the country’s most famous dish remain a little grey. What can be agreed upon, is that it emerged as an early morning staple while the country was still under French colonial rule, some time in the early 1910s.
From there it’s noble virtues have spread globally as the Vietnamese people have done the same, picking up pace after 1975. Since then, many a writer has written about its power to warm even the most sceptical of souls, and today it seems that everybody can appreciate a good bowl of pho, with the dish (and its name) franchised all over the world, as well as served in some of the best fine dining restaurants anywhere.
Perhaps a hybrid of both the French and Cantonese noodle soups that came before it, the earliest English language mention of ‘pho’ is said to have came in Countess Murphy’s 1935 book ‘Recipes of All Nations’, which described the dish as, ‘an Annamese soup held in high esteem…made with beef, a veal bone, onions, a bay leaf, salt and pepper and a small teaspoon of nuoc-mam (fish sauce).’
This description is a tad simplistic, with the taste of pho layered in complexity and rewarding to even the most discerning palate; sweet and spicy, nutritious and comforting in equal measure.
The dish has also evolved to include chicken as its main ingredient; the Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup), which adds to the original Pho Bo (beef noodle soup).
It’s worth noting that the values of each of these remain debated as hotly as the Hanoi summer sun. Old-school pho chefs remain incredulous of anything that strays from the original. “It’s just not pho”, you’ll hear them say – in Vietnamese.
The Perfect Pho Bo
Putting arguments aside, and for simplicity’s sake, here’s a recipe that’ll have your friends in awe once you’ve returned home. Feel free to get creative with the quantity and number of spices as well as the cooking times involved. Use it start your very own ‘House of Pho’. We’re sure you’ll have them lining up in no time.
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
- 1.5kg beef bones
- 1.5kg oxtail
- 1 onion, unpeeled
- 200g ginger, unpeeled
- 2 black cardamom pods
- 5 star anise
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 cloves
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 2 strips of dried orange peel
- 50ml fish sauce
- 1 tbsp rock or soft light brown sugar
- 600g wide flat dried rice noodles
- 4 spring onions, sliced
- 2 bird’s eye chilies, finely sliced
- 4 handfuls of bean sprouts (optional)
- 400g sirloin or fillet steak (optional), thinly sliced
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- Large bunch of coriander, to serve
- Large bunch of Thai basil, to serve
- Sriracha, hoisin and chili oil, to serve (optional)
- Place the beef bones and the oxtail in a large pan and cover with cold water.
- Bring to the boil for about 10-15 minutes, and wait for a ‘scum’ to raise the surface.
- Drain and discard the water, rinse the bones and the oxtail well before cleaning the pan.
- At the same time, char-grill the onion and ginger until black (you can also consider shallots and garlic) and then peel the skin off as far back as possible.
- Place the bones and meat back in the pan and then cover with three liters of cold water.
- Add the onion and ginger, plus as many of the spices as you desire, and bring it all to the boil again.
- Turn down the heat and let this mixture gently simmer for at least the next five hours, when the oxtail should start falling of the bone.
- Strain this, keeping the oxtail, then cool the broth and skim the fat if so desired. This should leave you with about two liters.
- Add the fish sauce, some sugar, salt and pepper to taste and fully remove the oxtail from the bone.
- Cook the rice noodles separately as per their packet instructions and divide into four bowls.
- Pour the steaming hot broth over the noodles and scatter spring onion, chili and bean sprouts. Then lay the oxtail and raw slices of sirloin steak (if you’re using it) on top.
- Serve with chili and other condiments to the side including Hoisin sauce.
Where to Get It
Of course, while making your own is admirable, there’s no better way to experience an authentic dish than to eat it in its’ place of birth.
Here’s five Hanoi Pho restaurants we can easily recommend:
Pho Tu Lun
23 Hai Ba Trung, Hoan Kiem
This place is traditional, and gained popularity just after Doi Moi, the term given to the economic reforms in Vietnam that began in the 1980s. Named after its original owner, Tu Lun, the restaurant remains family-owned and runs in two shifts, morning and afternoon. Expect a fragrant aroma, a salty broth and tender meat. And don’t forget to try the quay breadsticks as a perfect accompaniment. VND50,000.
Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan
49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem
Widely considered one of the best pho bo places in Hanoi, these guys are renowned for their clear broth and subtle flavours without the use of MSG. It’s also infamous for the fact that you have to line up and pay in advance, which doesn’t sit well with everyone. However, the version they serve here is a Hanoi classic. VND40-50,000
Pho Thin Lo Duc
13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung
Less traditional in that the meat is prepared differently (stir-fried with garlic) and added to the noodles before the broth, this small difference produces a transformation in flavor. Aromatic and dense, the broth is both rich and sweet, and slightly fattier. VND50,000
Pho Ly Quoc Su
10 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem
Another popular local favorite that may be too salty for some, but retains the true flavor of the beef bone and is enhanced by a secret family recipe. A bit more upmarket than the competition, it’s also slightly pricier, but you won’t mind when the Pho is this good.
Pho Bo Hang Trong
On the sidewalk near Hang Bong crossing
A truly streetside experience, and only open from 4pm to 8pm, this joint encourages an element of self-service. Smaller bowls mean it’s more of a snack than a full-on meal, but the broth is a classic Hanoi recipe, and this place epitomises the spirit of street food.
Pro Tip: Never rush a good pho. Remember, this is Vietnam in a bowl! Take your time and be open to conversation, you never know where it will lead you. Also, don’t be afraid of that plate of greens (a collection of mint leaf, basil and Vietnamese lettuce known as ‘rau’) that comes with every good pho. Rip and tear to your heart’s content. It’s like the mustard on your chili dog, only 1,000 times healthier. We also recommend getting involved in some hoisin and chili sauce to taste, after a good few sips of the broth.