What Is Pho and How Do You Make It?
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Whether you're new to pho and wondering "What is pho?" or it's your go-to Vietnamese order, we'll show you tips and tricks for making the comforting noodle soup at home.
A steaming bowl of pho is a Vietnamese staple that’s gained popularity worldwide. You’ve probably seen it on restaurant menus—but you may still be wondering: What exactly is pho? I chatted with food blogger Julie Tran Deily of The Little Kitchen to discuss all things pho, and get her tips for this endlessly customizable dish.
Pho was one of Julie’s favorite dishes growing up in a Vietnamese-American family. “Going out to eat was a treat for us since I come from a very large family. So when we would go to a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner as a family, I would order a bowl of pho and to go with it, sweetened soybean milk,” Julie says. When she eats it now, she adds, “it brings back so many memories.”
What Is Pho?
Pho, pronounced “fuh,” is a ubiquitous Vietnamese soup that consists of beef stock, rice noodles and sliced meat, traditionally beef. Most of pho’s flavor profile comes from the beef stock, which has an earthy, aromatic taste. Toppings and garnishes, like tart lime and spicy Sriracha, add a layer of bright and zesty flavors into the mix. While the origin story of pho and why it has become so popular isn’t completely clear, it definitely has a special place in Vietnamese culture—it is considered the country’s national dish, after all. And its warming, comforting taste has won over the hearts and stomachs of people from all corners of the globe, too.
“To me, pho is comfort food,” Julie says. “I grew up eating pho for special occasions, when my mom would make it for my whole family.”
How to Make Pho
While we’re sharing how to make one pho recipe, there are plenty of other variations of pho you can try. The two best-known types are beef (Julie’s favorite!) and chicken. You can even find vegan or vegetarian options that feature mushrooms, tofu and more. It’s not the easiest dish to make, but it’s so worth it.
- 3 pounds oxtails
- 4 ounces ginger root, peel on and slightly crushed
- 3 large sweet onions, halved
- 2 tablespoons whole white peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons whole allspice
- 2 tablespoons whole juniper berries
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 5 whole star anise
- 2 cinnamon sticks (3 inches)
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 pounds uncooked shrimp (26 to 30 per pound), peeled and deveined
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 3 teaspoons grated lime zest (about 2 limes)
- 1/4 cup Sriracha chili sauce
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1 package (14 ounces) thick rice noodles (banh pho)
Step 1: Prepare oxtails
In a stockpot, cover oxtails with three quarts of water. Bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Then, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes.
Step 2: Broil onions and ginger
Arrange onions and ginger on a baking sheet. Broil 4 inches from the heat until charred, for about 5 to 8 minutes, turning once. Then, peel and discard charred skin from both the onion and ginger. In a dry skillet over medium heat, cook and stir spices until fragrant, for about 3 to 5 minutes.
Step 3: Make stock
Drain and discard water from oxtails and return the oxtails to a clean pan. Cover with three quarts of water. Stir in onions, ginger, toasted spices, sugar, soy sauce, 5 tablespoons fish sauce and bay leaves and bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 6 hours. While cooking, add water to keep oxtails covered with water. Remove oxtails and set them aside until they’re cool enough to handle. Once cooled, remove and discard bones. Set beef aside for the soup or save for another use.
Step 4: Strain stock
Strain the stock through a cheesecloth-lined colander, discarding the solids. If using immediately, skim fat. Or, refrigerate the stock for 8 hours (or overnight) and then remove the fat from the surface.
Editor’s tip: The broth can be covered and refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for up to four to six months.
Step 5: Cook shrimp
For the shrimp, combine oil, 3 tablespoons fish sauce, Sriracha, lime zest and oregano in a shallow dish. Add shrimp and stir to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 45 minutes. Then, preheat oven to 375°F. Drain and discard the marinade. Arrange the shrimp on a 15 x 10 x 1-inch baking sheet and bake until shrimp turn pink, or for about 8 to 10 minutes.
Step 6: Make rice noodles and finishing touches
Prepare noodles according to package directions. In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. If desired, season the stock with additional fish sauce, salt and pepper.
Step 7: Plate and enjoy!
To serve, add noodles and, if desired, beef to serving bowls. Cover with stock. Arrange shrimp and garnishes as desired.
Julie’s tip: When it comes to adding flavors to a bowl of pho, Julie sticks with the classics. “I like to squeeze some lime and add cilantro, green onions and Thai basil. I grew up adding Sriracha and hoisin sauce to my pho, to taste, but I know some people don’t think it needs it.”
How Do You Eat Pho?
Alexander Spatari/Getty Images
Julie’s favorite way to eat pho is with chopsticks in one hand and a soup spoon in the other. She uses chopsticks to pick up the rice noodles and a soup spoon to slurp up the broth. And yes, it is actually polite to slurp up your soup, she says: “When you’re eating pho, the louder the slurping noises, the better. It’s a compliment to the cook and telling them how much you love it!”
Pho is filling on its own, but you can always add a few sides to round out the meal. “Pho is such a treat that you don’t need to serve it with anything except herbs like Thai basil and bean sprouts,” Julie explains, “but when I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, I like to order tofu spring rolls to have as an appetizer.”
Now that you’ve mastered pho, try one of these other Vietnamese recipes.