RELATED: Chicken pho
How do you pronounce pho?
There’s plenty of misinformation on the Internet regarding how to pronounce pho. Some well-meaning people would write guides using the International Phonetic Alphabet, which would spell pho as [fə̃ː]. If you read this, you’d be saying something closer to the usual English pronunciation, “fuh.”
But the Vietnamese language isn’t that simple. Its vowels are pronounced with a variety of tones, each with its unique pitch and distinguishing features. Before this turns into a full-blown phonetics lesson, let’s listen to a native speaker instead.
Following instructions from the video above, lower your voice then raise it afterwards (like fuuh?). You should also look at the spelling more carefully. The vowel ở of phở has a sound that doesn’t exist in English. To pronounce it correctly, you need to push your lower jaw forward at the end.
Note that this is the southern Vietnamese way of saying pho. Here’s a clip on how to pronounce pho with a northern accent.
The origins of pho are as muddled as the pronunciation of the word itself. Most historians would argue that it’s the Vietnamese adaptation of the French dish pot-au-feu, which would explain why it sounds more like “feu” than anything else. But other scholars argue that the name comes from the Chinese word, “fen.”
While the etymology of the word pho is quite hazy, there’s one thing that everyone can agree on: pho doesn’t directly translate to the aromatic noodle soup dish.
So, what is pho?
The word itself only refers to the long and flat rice noodles. You add a second word after “pho” to describe the dish you want more accurately.
Here are audio files detailing how to pronounce each word related to pho. You’ll find a description of some of them below.
The beef: pho bo vs. pho tai
If you’re talking about the iconic Vietnamese beef noodle soup, you can say pho bo (“fuuh? bah”). But even if you only say pho, it’s always understood that you mean pho bo because of how popular this variant has become.
So, what does pho have in it? What does pho taste like? The most crucial element is the beef stock, which draws its flavour from beef slices, cartilage and bones simmered for hours in a mix of spices like star anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds and cardamom. The result is a complex soup that’s delicate yet full-flavoured (like a consommé).
The soup is topped with beef slices and garnished with onions, basil, lime and chilli. If you want to try rare meat, order pho tai (“fuuh? tie?”) instead. The thinly sliced beef will be served on the side, and you can continue to cook it in the soup, much like a Japanese shabu-shabu.
Other cuts of beef are gầu (fatty brisket), gân (tendon) and bò viên (meatballs).
Keeping it simple: northern-style pho bac
The earliest versions of pho were breakfast staples in north Vietnam. But if you ask, “what does pho look like?” You’d probably get a description for the bodacious southern-style pho, which comes with an assortment of fresh vegetables that you can add to your soup.
That’s not the case with pho bac (fuuh bak), northern-style pho. The northern noodle dish banks on its simplicity – a basic rice noodle soup with beef, scallions, herbs, and pepper. Nothing on the side to add to the soup.
Why are they so different? When the country split into North and South Vietnam in 1954, northerners who migrated south decided to cook pho with the greater variety of ingredients available in the south. Those who remained in the north continued to enjoy the original version.
Try pho ga and pho chay, too!
If you’re looking for a different yet soul-satisfying alternative to beef pho, try pho ga (“fuuh gah”). Instead of beef stock, pho ga makes use of hearty chicken broth, giving it a light yellow hue. It’s also topped with chicken slices instead of beef. Other elements stay the same: the noodles, sliced onions, chillis and lime are constants.
Finally, there’s also pho chay (“fuuh gai”), the vegetarian version. Its stock is made with boiled carrots and radish, then topped with mushrooms and tofu in place of meat.
How do you order pho in Vietnam?
Now that you know the meaning of pho and how to pronounce it right, it wouldn’t hurt to learn how to order like a connoisseur, too. If you’re planning to visit Pho Hoa in Ho Chi Minh or Pho 10 in Hanoi, here are some tips to keep in mind.
TIP#1: Customize your broth
There’s a secret word that only insiders know: nước béo (nyuk baw), which stands for “extra fatty broth.” If you want to take your bowl to the next level, this is the way to go.
TIP#2: Bowl size
Nothing’s worse than still feeling hungry after finishing your bowl. Thankfully, most restaurants offer bowls in regular and large sizes. To order the large one, check the pho dac biet xe lua section of the menu. Meanwhile, if you see pho dac biet on the menu, that’s referring to the regular size.
Tip #3: No onions/coriander
Coriander is a pho staple, but a lot of people can’t stand it. If you want your bowl without it, say không hành ngò. Those who can do away without the extra onions can say không hành tây.
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