How to eat pho – How To Eat A Bowl Of Pho Like You Know What You’re Doing

How To Eat A Bowl Of Pho Like You Know What You’re Doing

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.

Read more about Vietnam on Food Republic:

Vietnam Week: How To Eat Pho

Home » » Vietnam Week: How To Eat Pho

Vietnam Week: How To Eat Pho

Vietnam’s national dish has a mysterious magical appeal.

The smell, the textures and the ritual of preparing a bowl of phở invades people’s dreams.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so popular for breakfast – if you’ve woken up with a phở yearning and you live in a place with a phở joint on just about every corner, why wouldn’t you have it straight away?

But phở is not just a breakfast dish. It can be eaten for lunch or dinner or even as a between-meal snack.

My phở experience begins even before I get to the restaurant. I love drawing in a deep breath of the star anise-scented stock as I near a phở place. I love looking at the phở-rapture on people’s faces as we squeeze through the busy restaurant to an empty table. I love the metal tables and backless stools of a true local phở joint, the collection of sauces, chilli, pickles, pepper, chopsticks and spoons on the table, the little dishes of lime and sliced chilli and the basket of leaves.

Phở condiments

I love the shouts as our order is relayed to the cooking area, the loud pops as we smack open our wet towels and their cool kiss as we wipe our hands and faces in preparation for what’s to come.

In less time than seems possible, steaming bowls are in front of us.

I love how the noise of the restaurant and the street beyond recedes as we both slip into a zen-like state to squeeze lime into our bowls, rip herbs into bite-sized pieces and scatter them on the broth, transport chopstick-fulls of bean sprouts to our soup, then slices of chilli, then maybe some pickled garlic.

A squeeze of sauce means our rituals are almost complete.

The noise of other diners comes back as we lift and fold the hot noodles over our additions and Darling Man prepares a dipping bowl of black sauce and chilli.

A few last mixing motions and then that first bite is conveyed through the air to a mouth that has been waiting far too long. Only after that first bite has been dealt with can conversation start.

This is a true phở experience – a noisy restaurant, silky noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, tender meat and floating herbs.

Visitors to Vietnam who play it safe and try phở at an air-conditioned phở chain or in a hotel restaurant are missing out on so much. Even many of those who venture out onto the streets aren’t getting the full experience. I’ve seen tourists start eating the soup without throwing in the extras or being too stingy with the amount of herbs used.

With this in mind, I’ve prepared a guide on how to eat pho (pronounced “fir” with a swooping questioning tone) so visitors to Vietnam can have the best phở experience possible.

Ask for recommendations. If you’re a beef-eater (which I’m not), ask anyone with passable English where they like to eat phở and you’ll be set.

If, like me, you prefer phở (chicken phở), then ask about that specifically. You will be heading to a place that only serves one or two dishes, so you have to make sure your dish is on the menu.

Once you have a recommendation from your new best friend, ask them to write your order on a piece of paper, or write it yourself using the ordering guide below. I usually travel with Darling Man, who specifies my phở should not have any skin, fat, offal, bones or tendon, just lean chicken meat. Other phở variations can include various cuts of beef and even a side of raw egg. You can, of course, just point to what you want when you order.

A selection of phở meats

Your ordering options for phở (beef phở) can include:

  • phở tái – raw beef
  • tái nạm – a mix of cooked and raw beef
  • gầu -fatty brisket
  • gân – tendon

For phở (chicken phở), your options can include:

  • miến gà – with crystal noodles
  • lông gà – with chicken gizzards
  • nạc – with lean chicken meat (my personal preference)

If you’d like to stir in a raw egg for extra protein, you can ask for một chiên trứng (a small bowl of egg).

Survey what’s on your table and decide which enhancements you’re going to try. The condiments differ from restaurant to restaurant. I usually have a squirt of black sauce, called hoisin sauce for the technically minded. Darling Man sometimes adds a small squirt of chilli sauce to his phở.

Pho condiments

If there’s a stack of little dipping bowls on the table (and they’re not available everywhere) and you’ve decided you want to dip, prepare your dipping sauce now. A good long squirt of black sauce and a scoop or two of the dark chilli sauce, then give it all a bit of a mix.

If you’ve ordered phở tái (raw beef), your meat will still be red when your bowl arrives at the table (obviously). The soup will cook the meat, so if you don’t like your beef rare, push the meat down into the soup.

Phở bò

After organising your meat, squeeze one segment of lime into your bowl (for vitamin C), throw in some bean sprouts and then grab a handful of saw-tooth herb (the long leaves). Rip this into bite size pieces and throw it into the bowl. Do the saw-tooth herb first because it’s the toughest of the greens, so needs a little bit longer to cook. Then select a branch of herbs. Rip the leaves off one by one and throw them into your bowl.

Phở herbs

I usually use the leaves of one stem of the lemon-scented Vietnamese balm (it looks like basil but the leaves have serrated edges) and one or two stems of basil. Rice paddy herb is often served with pho. This herb has a fat stem and small leaves and I think it’s too bitter for phở so I never use it.

Now is the time to add chilli slices if you’re a hot chilli woman or hot chilli man. I usually add just one slice, and take it out again after a few minutes, leaving just enough heat to give my tongue a tingle but not enough to overpower the other flavours.

Don’t be stingy with your phở herbs. Your bowl should look like this.

If there’s pickled garlic, throw in a few bulbs. Phở is, after all, considered medicine as well as food, and garlic will add extra anti-bacterial properties to your bowl of hot steaming goodness.

Add a squeeze of your desired sauce to your bowl. Not too much because you don’t want to overwhelm the delicate flavours of the broth. I use a little black sauce, which gives my phở a deeper colour and a richer caramel-y taste which I think works well with the star-anise in the stock.

Almost there! It’s time to stir everything together, wilting the leaves and stirring in the sauce and distributing all the additions evenly through the soup.

Select your first mouthful, blow on it to cool it and then convey it into your mouth.

You can use the chopsticks to carry some meat or noodles to your mouth or you can use your chopsticks to load up a spoon (holding a spoon in your non-dominant hand can be awkward at first, but it is worth the effort to attempt this because you can experience all kinds of different phở flavour combinations).

If you’ve prepared a dipping sauce, now is the time to dip.

Enjoy! Remember that in Vietnam, slurping is OK and getting a bit messy is expected. You can reduce the messiness of your phở experience by leaning right over your bowl and shoveling and sucking simultaneously.

Vietnamese women somehow manage to eat phở more delicately than the men, loading up their spoons and serenely conveying it to their mouth without any drips or flips or slippery slide-offs. But foreigners are given special dispensation in the manners department, so just eat your phở whichever way suits you.

An anything goes eating style

All these steps will take less time than reading these instructions. Once you know what to do, the ripping, throwing, adding and mixing will be like second nature. So please don’t think eating phở is complicated. It’s not, it’s just heaps of fun, a create-your-own-adventure food.

Try phở at Huong Binh, 148 Vo Thi Sau, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

For more foodie photos and other fun, follow Dropout Diaries on Instagram and on Facebook


By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Currently on a year-long World School adventure with my two kids, seeing what this wonderful world can teach us.

How To Eat Pho

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A Brief History and How to Eat it

Have you recently scrolled through your Insta feed and seen a post of Vietnamese noodles and thought to yourself, what is pho? Whether this is the first time you’re hearing about pho or you just want to learn some history behind it, I hope that this makes you more excited to eat pho. As a pho enthusiast, I am more than eager to inform you of what you have been missing. 

What is Pho?

Jordi Almeida

Phở, pronounced «fuh,» is a Vietnamese soup that is normally made with a bone-beef broth, banh pho noodles, and thinly sliced beef, that’s often served with bean sprouts and other fresh herbs on the side. Not to be confused with Japanese ramen, which is usually made with wheat noodles, pho is made with rice noodles. It is important to note that there are many variations of pho. The most common is pho nam, which originates in Southern Vietnam, and pho bac, which is from Northern Vietnam and considered to be the original pho.

History of Pho

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According to Cuong Hyunh, creator of, it is believed that pho originates in the Nam Dinh and Hanoi regions of North Vietnam after the French colonization of the country in the late 1880s. It is believed that the word «pho» comes from the French word «feu,» meaning fire, and could possibly be a Vietnamese take on the French dish pot au feu. Pho bac, the original pho, is made by boiling beef bones for several days and has a heavy emphasis on the delicate and simple broth. The broth is accompanied only by rice noodles and and thinly sliced beef.  After the second world war, many people from North Vietnam moved to South Vietnam to escape the communist rule of the North. This led to the creation of pho nam. Pho nam is usually made with a broth that is seasoned with many spices and heavily garnished with fresh herbs such as bean sprouts, basil, and cilantro. Pho nam became popular in southern Vietnam and is still commonly sold by street vendors due to its convenience. After the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnamese conflict, many people of the South fled to various parts of the world, allowing the spread pho along with other Vietnamese dishes. Pho is now easily found in many places of the world and is very popular on social media. 

How to Eat Pho

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Pho bo (beef pho) is usually served with a large bowl of broth and rice noodles and is accompanied by a plate of thinly sliced raw beef and a plate of fresh garnishes like basil, cilantro, radishes, chilies, and lime. At most pho restaurants, there are also several condiments on the table, such as hoisin sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, Sriracha, and chili paste, to flavor the broth. Essentially, each bowl of pho is unique to you. With many different add-ins, you are able to adjust the pho to your preference. I recommend starting with adding raw meat to your broth.

Jordi Almeida

After adding the meat, add fresh garnishes of your choice. I prefer adding the aromatic herbs first, such as basil and cilantro, to allow the flavor of the herbs infuse with the broth. Next, I add the garnishes that provide extra texture to the pho, such as bean sprouts, radishes, and chilies. To top it off, I add any sauces or lime to my dish. I like adding chili paste, hoisin sauce, and a squeeze of lime.

Jordi Almeida

Variations of Pho

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Not a fan of beef? No worries! There are multiple variations of pho. The most common variations are pho ga (chicken pho) and pho chay (vegetarian pho). It is important to note, however, that not all Vietnamese noodle soup dishes are considered pho. For example, Bun Bo Hue is a pork base broth with rice noodles from the Hue region of central Vietnam and Hu Tieu is a pork and seafood noodle soup that is common in Southern region of Vietnam. Although these other dishes may look similar to pho, they differ in their flavors and are not always served with banh pho noodles (flat rice noodles).

Jordi Almeida

Now that you know the answer to the question of «what is pho,» you are ready to explore and create a pho that is unique to you.

#SpoonTip: Do not wear white when eating pho, it will more than likely get stained (from personal experience.)

How to Eat Pho — Viet World Kitchen

pho is like putting together your own hamburger — you can have it your
way. So, before putting any pho into your mouth, add your own finishing
touches. Then dive in with a two-handed approach: chopsticks in one hand
to pick up the noodles, the soup spoon in the other to scoop up broth
and other goodies.

Whether you go out for pho or make a bowl at home (see my recipe), your pho
ritual may include:

Add them raw for crunch or blanch them first.

Dip and wiggle thin slices of hot chile in the hot broth to release
the oil. Leave them in if you dare. For best fragrance and taste, try
Southeast Asian chiles such as Thai bird or dragon rather than jalapeños.
Serranos are better than jalapeños.

Strip fresh herb leaves from their stems, tear up the leaves and drop
them into your bowl. Available at Viet markets, pricey ngo gai (culantro,
thorny cilantro, saw-leaf herb) imparts heady cilantro notes. The ubiquitous
purple-stemmed Asian/Thai basil (hung que) contributes sweet
anise-like flavors. Spearmint (hung lui), popular in the north,
adds zip. [For details, see Essential
Viet herb page on this site.]

A squeeze of lime gives the broth a tart edge, especially nice if the
broth is too sweet or bland.

Many people squirt hoisin (tuong) or Sriracha hot sauce directly
into the bowl. I don’t favor this practice because it obliterates a
well-prepared, nuanced broth. But I do reach for the hoisin and Sriracha
bottles to make a dipping sauce for the beef meatballs (bo vien).

Best Tips & Rules for Eating Pho Soup


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