What Is Pho and How to Make It

Everything you need to know about the trendy Vietnamese soup.

Photo by rez-art/Getty Images

Last week, the seers over at Google released a comprehensive report revealing the top trends in food and recipe search from coast to coast—offering, basically, a bird’s eye view of Americans’ culinary curiosities, guilty pleasures, and weeknight cravings. There were exciting up-and-comers on the list (turmeric, we’re looking at you) and a few falling stars we won’t miss (bacon cupcakes, anyone?) But the winner that put the biggest smile on our face was a classic Vietnamese dish that’s a tricky to pronounce but super easy to slurp down: Pho.

Our affection for pho isn’t entirely new: According to Google, searches for the fragrant noodle soup have increased steadily for the past decade, with a marked uptick—11 percent year-over-year—in the past three years alone. Certainly, if you’ve ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant, you’ve reveled in its heady aroma. While its origins are murky, most historians agree that pho first appeared around the turn of the 20th century in northern Vietnam, and some speculate that the name is a play on the French beef stew, pot au feu, which was introduced to the country during the period of colonization.

In its most basic form, a bowl of pho consists of a foundation of rice noodles topped with thinly sliced raw beef, which gets cooked when a portion of steaming, spiced beef broth is poured over top. Finished with a flurry of fresh herbs, like cilantro and basil, as well as crunchy bean sprouts, hot chiles, and tart lime, pho makes an, ahem, restorative meal any time of day. Indeed, in its home country, pho is still best loved as a breakfast dish, available from every corner food stall. But because, whether topped with beef or chicken, it is the robust, deeply savory broth that is its backbone, traditional versions of pho can take a day or more to make—there’s just no faking that slow simmered stock. That’s not exactly conducive to weeknight cooking, which is why most folks—even Vietnamese-Americans—usually buy their pho from a pro.

That may be changing, though. One of the more interesting details in Google’s report explains that traffic around pho has recently included more recipe searches—suggesting that home cooks are eager to try and recreate the magic of the dish at home. We can certainly get behind that. And happily, as long as you’re not a purist, there are plenty of pho shortcuts that deliver a lot of the deliciousness in a fraction of the time. Here, a few of our favorites:

  • Use store bought broth. Though there’s no comparing the boxed stuff to the real thing, sometimes you just want a steaming bowl of pho right now. It pays to seek out a brand that is clean-tasting, rich, and beefy. Our fave? Trader Joe’s Organic Beef Broth.
  • Add some exotic spices. Star anise, cloves, and cinnamon are the aromatic trinity in traditional pho stock—so try adding a few whole spices to the store-bought stuff, along with a bit of fresh ginger and a glug of funky fish sauce. Though it won’t replicate the complexity of a long-simmered broth, it will infuse the mixture with a delightful aroma and deepen all of the flavors.
  • Use leftovers. Handling raw beef at the dinner table not your thing? Swap out the traditional topping for something a little more approachable (and convenient) like rotisserie chicken, leftover steak, or even Thanksgiving turkey. Vegetarian? Skip the meat and toss in some tofu or mushrooms instead.
  • Don’t skimp on the add-ons. One of the best parts of traditional pho—the fresh garnishes—requires no cooking at all, so take the opportunity to really make them shine. Seek out the freshest, greenest basil and cilantro, a variety of chiles, the crunchiest sprouts, and the juiciest limes, and always offer plenty of them. Sriracha is also de rigeur—and hoisin sauce doesn’t hurt either.