Everything You Need to Know About Pho (And How to Make It)

What is Pho? We dish on the totally delicious Vietnamese soup.

Pho isn't exactly a new food or recipe trend; it's been on Google's comprehensive report detailing Americans' culinary curiosities, guilty pleasures, and weeknight cravings for years. Plus, searches for the fragrant noodle soup have increased steadily for the past decade. In fact, if you've ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant, you've probably 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, 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 a 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.

Whether topped with beef or chicken, the robust, deeply savory broth remains its backbone—traditional versions of pho can take a day or more to make; there's just no faking that slow simmered stock.

Though days' long simmering isn't conducive to a quick weeknight meal home cooks are eager to try and recreate the magic of the dish. 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 spices. Star anise, cloves, and cinnamon are the aromatic trinity in traditional pho stock. Try adding a few whole spices to the store-bought stuff, along with fresh ginger and a glug of 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 the flavors.
  • Use leftovers. If handling raw beef at the dinner table isn't 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 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.
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