No matter what time of day or night, a steaming bowl of pho noodle soup is never hard to find, says Trip Savvy. Pho is “Vietnam's unofficial national dish, exported with pride all over the world.” Very simply, pho consists of flat rice noodles in a light, meat-based broth “usually accompanied by basil, lime, chili, and other extras on the side so that eaters can season the soup to their own taste … the balanced tastes of sweet, salty, spicy, and citrus are highly contagious.”
Beef pho was first created during the French colonial period, explains Momentum, “as a Vietnamese interpretation of beef casserole.” According to legend, during French colonial times (1887-1954), a street vendor just outside of Hanoi was “one of the first to gather discarded marrow-rich bones, cartilage-rich oxtail and other undesirable cuts of beef.” He then poached them with “a concoction of spices left by the Chinese (cloves, star anise, black cardamom),” but being Vietnamese, not French, “he had to have it with noodles.” And when the communists ruled the north after the revolution in 1954 many northerners fled south, “brought the much-loved phở with them” and proceeded to develop local versions. Today, says Momentum, southerners like their bánh phở noodles much thinner and with more of a bite -- “thinner noodles let more air circulate, thus making the slurp of broth or sauce more indulgent and satisfying.”
Like all Vietnamese food, pho is regional. “There's little argument that Pho came from North Vietnam,”says Loving Pho, who personally prefers Northern Pho for its “purity, simplicity and deliciousness,”while pointing out that “the vast majority of pho restaurants around the world serve the Southern style. The pho gets “richer and better along the coast and delta regions as I travel north,” says Vietnam Coracle, but in the mountains it gets “more watery and, in some cases, pretty darn bad.”
So what’s the difference between Northern and Southern pho? Here’s how Asian Inspirations explains it:
Textures: “Northern pho tends to use wider rice noodles.”
Broth: “The focus of the Northern pho is on the taste of its clear and simple broth, whereas its Southern counterpart is slightly sweeter and bolder.”
Meats: “Northern people prefer eating pho with chicken meat or a simple minced rare beef. In the south, the meat dominates, utilising many parts of beef such as sliced rare beef, bone marrow, tendon, fatty flank, brisket and meatballs.
Toppings: “Northern pho uses much more green onion, while the Southern has bean sprouts and a variety of herbs, including Thai basil and coriander.
Sauces: “Pho Bac from the North uses rice vinegar, fish sauce and chilli sauce for seasoning. It also uses much more MSG than other regions. In the South, they serve pho with lime, hoisin sauce, chilli sauce and fresh sliced chillies.”
Mornings are historically a special time for pho in Vietnam, says by Amy McKeever in Eater. That’s because pho was an ideal breakfast for workers in the rice fields and at other physically challenging jobs -- “it was heavy enough to get those workers through the morning and light enough that it wouldn't weigh them down.” Here’s how the pho-producing cycle works: “Vendors rise early to get their ingredients and start their broth around 2 a.m. (if it hasn't already been simmering since the night before), open shop around 6 a.m., sell out by around 10 a.m., and get started again either for that evening or the next morning.” In recent years, the hours for pho in Ho Chi Minh City have been stretching out as pho vendors “seek to make their pricey rent payments.” And the rise of the Vietnamese middle class might have something to do with the emergence of lunchtime pho … “working habits are changing, and with that comes a necessary tweak of the culinary rhythm.”
And here’s the History and Evolution of Pho: A Hundred Years' Journey, from Loving Pho.