How to tell if your Pho is #authentic

Just because you see the word “pho” on a menu doesn’t mean you’re getting the real thing.

There are a lot of restaurants that are trying to be part of the new, hottest food to come out of Asia—specifically Vietnam. There is nothing wrong with expanding a menu to please diners but there is something wrong with hawking inauthentic or half-way dishes to guests that are led to believe they are getting the real deal. Even worse are the places that use ‘instant’ seasonings to make their pho—we won’t name names but they’re out there. So, how do you know you’re getting the real deal and not getting ripped off?

As the old saying goes “the proof is in the pudding”. The pudding in this case is the broth because pho is all about the broth—from how its simmered to how its seasoned. There are plenty of soups out there of various origins but there is only one Pho. In order for a broth to be authentic pho broth it has to have these three things:

  1. It must use beef bones to create the stock. Pho is not just “beef soup”. There are varieties of beef soup that do not require beef bones to be used while making them. But pho is not one of those. Pho absolutely, must, without a doubt, be made using beef bones (for beef pho—this article doesn’t address chicken pho, which would use chicken instead). Read that again: Pho absolutely, must, without a doubt, be made using beef bones. Anyone that says they are selling “pho” but that doesn’t make their stock with beef bones isn’t selling pho. You will know that your pho was made with beef bones because there will be a certain richness that you just can’t reproduce without the bones. But, an easier tell-tale sign is the presence of yellow fat that comes from the bone marrow. Look for it next time you have a bowl of pho.
  2. Pho must be seasoned with the right spices. Pho requires the use of certain spices, including star anise and cinnamon. Without these, pho just simply isn’t pho! You know your pho has these included from the first aroma that lifts up out of the soup when it is served to you. There is a particular fragrance that dances in the air around a bowl of pho. These spices are often used in dishes in Northern Vietnam where they are native and where they were incorporated into Pho and they make pho stand apart from other beef soups.
  3. Pho should be a careful balance between salty and sweet—but a little more on the salty side. Some soups are salty while others are sweet—this is just how they are made. Pho, however, should definitely not be sweet. At the same time, there are elements of pho that balance out the saltiness so that the soup ends up more well-rounded than some other noodle soups.

There is one more thing that makes pho pho: the veggies served with it. Bean sprouts and fresh herbs are the traditional sides, however, this part is totally up to the diner. As the diner, you choose what to put into your pho. Some people will through in everything while others don’t use any of the side veggies. Ultimately, it is up to you.

Next time you go for pho, see if you can spot these three things.