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Banh Pho (Bánh Phở) – It’s All About the Square Noodles

June 13, 2009

Updated 05-04-12. There are three main elements to every bowl of Vietnamese pho: the steamy, flavorful and aromatic broth; the meat, whether it is tenderly cooked chicken or beef that is rare or well-done; and the banh pho noodle. It’s the banh pho that makes pho a noodle dish. Without banh pho noodle, it’s just another soup. Many Vietnamese culinary experts will tell you that the life of pho is in the broth because that is where most of the flavors that characterize this dish are in. But one can argue that the body of pho is in the banh pho noodle itself. Everything else – the fresh herbs, the bean sprouts, the sliced Serrano chili (or jalapeno in the U.S.,) the lime wedges and all the other fixings in the bowl – is just optional, nice to have stuff.

What is Banh Pho Noodle?

1x1.trans Banh Pho (Bánh Phở)   Its All About the Square NoodlesLet’s start with a quick definition. Banh pho is the noodle used in pho dish. What differentiates banh pho from other noodle varieties is banh pho has square or rectangular cross-sections (depending on width size), as opposed to mostly round cross-sections most other noodles come in. For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll use banh pho and banh pho noodle interchangeably. Banh pho are noodles made from rice flour. In countries other than Vietnam, they are called chantaboon or rice sticks.  Modern conveniences have seen banh pho sold as dry packaged varieties in supermarkets and grocery stores, but the ideal banh phoare those made fresh. These Vietnamese noodles are flat and white, with widths varying from a millimeter to a centimeter, or even wider (or 1/16″ to wider widths of 1/8″, 1/4″ or sometimes even 3/8″.) When banh pho is cooked, its texture becomes soft and chewy, and its appearance translucent.

Banh Pho: An Essential Pho Ingredient

Why is banh pho so important in a bowl of pho? One can say that pho is not pho without the correct banh pho rice noodles in it. You can eliminate the garnishing, but you cannot take banh pho noodles out of a proper bowl of pho. And you can’t have just few strands of banh pho floating in the broth, you have to have a whole lot of them. In fact in a restaurant, it’s totally an acceptable option to order more banh pho in your bowl than normally served (see the article on “Tips on Ordering Pho Your Way.”) 1x1.trans Banh Pho (Bánh Phở)   Its All About the Square NoodlesHere’s another way of looking at it. In Vietnam and Southeast Asia in general, a meal is always composed of a main dish that is starchy and made of carbohydrates. These come in the form of either steamed rice or noodles. The other dishes made from meat, seafood or vegetables eaten at the table during the meal are just side dishes that complement the rice or the noodles served. There may be a soup side dish served along side the other side dishes. This is called “canh” in Vietnamese, and is often consumed in small bowl sized portion over rice or by itself during the course of the meal.

Banh Pho: The Foundation of a Pho Meal

A meal in Southeast Asia is never complete without the rice or the noodles, and when pho, hu tieu or any other noodle dish is the meal, the noodles are the foundation of such meal. Vietnamese pho is a complete meal in a bowl. The broth serves as the soup, the rice noodles the starchy element, the meat as the protein, and the herb garnishing and the bean sprouts as the salad part. All these elements form a unified whole and the meal would not be filling (nor fulfilling) without the rice noodles. However, it is not enough that the rice noodles just exist in the bowl. In an Asian meal, the rice dish is so important that its quality dictates the tone of the entire meal. If one has to force down rice that was not properly cooked, it spoils the meal even if the side dishes were made for the kings and emperors. The same thing applies to banh pho noodle. Bad noodles make bad pho. Banh phoshould be fresh, with a slippery texture that is smooth enough for a good and easy slurp. If they are of the dried, supermarket variety, they should be prepared carefully. They should not sit in sticky clumps in the bottom of the bowl, and they should not be tough to chew on. Neither should they be so overcooked that they break apart when you pick them up with your chopsticks.

1x1.trans Banh Pho (Bánh Phở)   Its All About the Square Noodles A Sample Package of Fresh Banh Pho Noodle1x1.trans Banh Pho (Bánh Phở)   Its All About the Square Noodles Fresh Banh Pho Noodle Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 2 oz (56g), calories 150, sodium 240mg, total carbohydrate 35g, protein 3g

How Banh Pho Is Made

As mentioned above, banh pho noodles are made from rice flour.  Although the dried version is now available in supermarkets and grocery stores, these noodles are best when they are freshly made. In Vietnam, it would not be surprising to find a family that makes its own banh pho. TravelPod.com has a simple yet interesting post detailing how Vermicelli noodle is made. I imagine banh pho is made similarly – I’ll have to do more research on this.

Preparing Banh Pho for Pho

Properly preparing banh pho noodles for serving in pho depends on whether you use the dry or fresh banh pho. If the banh pho is the dry type, then they should be soaked in hot water for 15 to 20 minutes, and drained afterwards. The resulting noodles should be soft and translucent.

1x1.trans Banh Pho (Bánh Phở)   Its All About the Square Noodles Three Sizes of Dry Banh Pho Noodles1x1.trans Banh Pho (Bánh Phở)   Its All About the Square Noodles Variety of Dry Banh Pho at Local Asian Market

But if the banh phois fresh, it should be rinsed under cold running water and then blanched in boiling water for no more than a few seconds, until the desired softness and translucence is achieved. The noodles are then placed in individual bowls, occupying about a third of the available space. Obviously those who like more noodles in their pho can add more banh pho as desired. Just remember to scale down on the other ingredients as the noodle will expand in the hot broth. The meat is placed over banh pho, and then the piping hot broth is ladled into the bowl.

The Bottom Line: Pho Is not Pho Without Banh Pho

Substituting a different noodle may be acceptable at home but what you have then is “broken” pho. No self-respecting pho restaurant will serve pho without properly prepared banh pho, because it’s just “wrong.” If you run across someone serving pho with round noodles (bun or vermicelli,) demand your money back because it is something else and certainly not pho they’re selling you. Or if you as a customer request a different noodle yourself, then pat yourself on the back for being adventurous, but please come back and order to correct banh pho next time 1x1.trans Banh Pho (Bánh Phở)   Its All About the Square Noodles

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Irene November 4, 2009 at 8:34 pm

I tired that brands banh pho and did not like it. It would always break and did not taste good. A better brand that my family use is Sincere Orient. It is also fresh made.

2 Cuong Huynh November 5, 2009 at 1:57 am

Hi Irene,

I totally agree with you. These fresh banh pho, and the brand your mentioned, Sincere Orient Food’s Bánh Phở Tươi are my recommendation too. There’s no reason why one should need to deal with the dry, packaged varieties that you have to boil for 10-15 minutes, then get a big mess afterward.

3 Thao Tran February 20, 2012 at 11:35 am

I have tried Banh Pho Hieu Ba Cay Tre or Three bamboo label and it’s one of the best. The texture and taste is the right consisitency.

4 Cuong February 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Hi Thao Tran: I have never tried this brand as I don’t think it’s available in the U.S. I see this banh pho My Tho with the Three Bamboo Tree brand so it’s probably the same brand you are referring to.

5 Nshifter February 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Anyone know where I can buy these vietnamese noodles in the chicago area? Preferrably west suburbs..joliet..plainfield..naperville. Thanks.

6 Thao Tran February 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm

@Cuong, it is available in the US. Where do you live?
@nshifter, they might not have it in Chicago, yet. Cities with a large Vietnamese community would carry them. I’m sure it’ll be on shelves in Chicago pretty soon. I’m actually eating right now (Bun Rieu Oc)

7 Cuong February 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm

@Nshifter: On the map in the areas you specified, I can see Naperville Oriental Foods that you can try, or the Southwest Oriental Market in Orland Park. In general most Chinese or Vietnamese supermarkets or grocery stores will have the banh pho, but the brands you find will vary widely. Of course if you go Uptown you’ll find plenty I’m sure.

@Thao Tran: I’m all over Southern and Northern CA, and also in Seattle WA. I can’t say that I know all there is to know about pho brands, so I may have missed seeing this brand. Chicago does have a large Viet community so Nshifter will surely find banh pho. It can be rare in the suburbs he mentioned though.

Bun Rieu Oc? wow haven’t had that for ages :)

8 Raisha July 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Hi. I really want to find a recipe for making bahn pho noodles at home. I only found a video but no recipe on the ratios of rice or rice flour, to water. :( Can you help me?

I use this video as a guide because it’s the closeting thing I could find! T^T http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLNyM_yqIlM

9 Cuong July 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Raisha: I don’t think I can help you here. I have not attempted to make it myself, but I would think making banh pho noodle/spaghetti/pasta should be simple process of extruding rice dough into boiling water and cooking it, or cutting freshly steamed, thin dough into strands. The key I think is not the process, but you have to have the right tools and work at it to develop the skills.

Here’s one you can enjoy and learn from (in Vietnamese): Banh Pho Ba Ngoan

And here’s another one, go to 4:21 time mark (in english): Making banh pho from Vietnamese Food Documentary

10 Truong January 28, 2014 at 8:37 am

Does anyone know a banh pho brand that is square shaped??..i keep running into rectangle shaped ones. preferably the fresh variety..please enlighten..thanks

11 Cuong January 28, 2014 at 8:51 am

@Truong: Banh pho comes in various widths ranging from 3mm to 10mm (that’s millimeter) in the dry bags. At the smaller width of 3mm you essentially have the square cross section preferred by many people for pho. At the larger width of 10mm you have something people use in Pad Tai. Even larger sizes are used for dishes like chow fun or pan fried noodle. So look for the correct size where you buy the dry banh pho.

For fresh banh pho, I think you’re more likely to find only the small size. You didn’t mention where you live so three’s not much I can help you with.

12 Truong January 28, 2014 at 9:46 am

@Cuong..im in the houston tx area..
So ur saying square shaped noodles only come in the dry variety?..

13 Cuong January 28, 2014 at 9:56 am

No Truong, actually that’s not what I am saying. I said “For fresh banh pho, I think you’re more likely to find only the small size,” meaning they only make them small size, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding them. If you’re in Houston, then you should have no problem finding the fresh banh pho from many Viet/Asian supermarkets. It’s a sure bet the you can find it in:

99 Ranch
http://www.yelp.com/biz/99-ranch-market-houston#query:Asian%20Supermarket
or
Viet Hoa
http://www.yelp.com/biz/viet-hoa-international-foods-houston#query:Asian%20Supermarket
etc.

You’ve never seen these?
http://xuandirecipebook.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/2012-08-19_09-55-07_102.jpg
http://a3.img.mobypicture.com/9bee725b77935069bdf287a79103e020_view.jpg

Good luck Truong.

14 Truong January 28, 2014 at 10:49 am

Thanks Cuong!!

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