How to Eat Pho and Finding Your Own Pho - A Primer For First-Time Diners

Updated 03-14-15. OK let's get back to the basics. Here's a primer for those new to Vietnamese pho. For the pho connoisseurs, please share your views and experience, or check out other posts at the end of this article.

When it comes to pho, a Vietnamese would have the distinct advantage of knowing how to enjoy the noodle dish. Regardless of whether he or she grew up in the homeland or in an immigrant household overseas, he or she would have a mother or a grandmother who made this heart-filling noodle soup for breakfast each day, cooked using snippets of a recipe and with memories of how it is done in their own mother's kitchen. Or at the very least, he or she would have a mother who would herd the family to a restaurant every so often whenever they feel the urge. Eating pho is natural to a Vietnamese.

A non-Vietnamese will not have the same experience. Aside from having to deal with the chopsticks, pho will always look and smell foreign to anyone who did not grow up eating it. When faced with a steaming bowl of this noodle, and especially if it is your first time to sample the national dish of Vietnam, you may have a challenge on your hand. Here are some tips.

Simple Process of Enjoying Pho

If you find yourself in a pho shop for the first time, it's likely that a Vietnamese friend or a friend who knows this dish has invited you. But in the event that you are a real brave soul and decide to go try by yourself, figuring out how to eat pho can be a dilemma.

Thankfully, eating pho is not like eating Western food or even Japanese food. There is no unspoken etiquette that must be observed. This dish is meant to be enjoyed with some noise and a lot of slurping is just fine. So here's the process in a nutshell.

The best way to attack a steaming bowl of pho is to have chopsticks in one hand and a soupspoon in the other. Take in a little broth with your spoon, slurp in some to get a taste of it. Follow it up with the rice noodles using your chopsticks. Then select pieces of ingredients from the bowl and enjoy them individually or together with the broth and noodle. Easy. But there's more.

Taking in the Aroma

Of course, before you start eating pho, you cannot miss noticing the aroma created by the piping-hot broth. Just taking in the rich aroma of beef stock simmered for a really long time with spices, roasted onion and roasted ginger thrown in is enough to whet the appetite. The aroma of the broth really kicks up the anticipation of the poetry that is about to come from that bowl of pho.

The fragrance of the broth is also a good indicator of its quality. Just one sniff will tell you if the spices are balanced in making the soup, if the broth is too salty, if there is monosodium glutamate sprinkled in it, or if the beef stock itself is poorly made. Remember that the soul of pho is in the broth. So enjoying the scent is definitely an important part of the dining ritual.

What to Do With the Garnishing

Primer for first-time pho dinersWhen you are served southern style Vietnamese pho, you will always be provided with a plate of garnishing. This plate would typically contain bean sprouts, culantro, Thai basil, sliced chili and lime wedges. Also you will have hoisin sauce and hot chili sauce available at the table.

Is there a specific order by which you should place these herbs in your bowl of pho? The answer to this is no. With the garnishing, you can think of it as finding the best combination that will fit your taste. Each individual garnish contributes its own distinct smell and taste to an already good bowl of pho. You do not want to dump all the garnishing into the bowl at the same time. Rather, just try a few at a time to get your preferred mix. More importantly, give the ingredients several chances (on different visits) and you'll appreciate their roles in this noodle dish.

Here are a few tips on consuming the ingredients:

  • Bean sprouts are put in raw for the crunchy factor. Add a little at a time to maintain the crunchiness as you eat, or add them all while the broth is hot to cook them. The downside here is it takes heat to cook your sprouts, and as a result your broth will cool before you finish your bowl of pho. This is why many people request blanched sprouts.
  • Dipping the sliced chili in the hot broth releases the oil and makes the broth taste spicier. You can keep them in if you dare. Many do. But really, about half of the jalapenos are not all that hot. I prefer the smaller but hotter Thai peppers or similar varieties.
  • Lime juice adds tartness to the broth, which is good if the broth tastes bland, too salty, or too sweet for you. The saltiness and tartness together provide a delicious combination that many people love - I'm one of them. I can do without the other things, but lime I must have.
  • The herb leaves are stripped from the stems and can be shredded to bits by hand before they are placed in the bowl. For the best aroma and taste, don't drop them all in at the same time in the beginning. I tear the leaves in smaller pieces, and add them as I go to maintain freshest and uncooked flavor. Even down to my last few chopstickfuls of noodle, I'm still dropping in some fresh bits of basil and culantro. The fragrance is incredible.

Eating pho is always an adventure, even for those who have had it all their lives. For first-time diners, the key is to relax and enjoy. You'll find your own pho in no time.

40 comments

  1. Cuong Huynh 26 May, 2011 at 10:24 Reply

    Jason: Peru has never been the hotbed of Vietnamese foods for obvious reason. It’s very much the the same as when the Vietnamese first came to North America in the 70’s. We were lucky to find white rice and soy sauce at a local Chinese market. I remember I would eat just steamed rice and soy sauce and be content for the whole month! Authentic ingredients are definitely important for making an authentic dish.

  2. Bear 3 September, 2011 at 09:27 Reply

    Finally! Someone to tell me if I’ve been embarrasing myself for the last six months… I love noodles of all kinds and discovered a local place called Pho 79 and have enjoyed their offerings ever since. if I were Buddhist, I might suspect that I was Asian in a previous life from the feeling of “being home” the aromas and flavors brought to mind.

  3. Bear 5 September, 2011 at 06:42 Reply

    Nothing in particular Cuong. Just trying to figure out the Thai vs. Chinese manners thing. I grew up with a pair of Chinese/Irish boys and their first generation Chinese grandmother and she introduced me to many of the foods she cooked, but she didn’t know more than “you try” and “you like?” and the boys were too bored to sit and translate, so I got a grand introduction to bok choi, Chinese pickles, five spice powder and so many other flavors, but almost no explanations, names or understanding of the social aspects which went with the foods. At the table, she often had me ape her actions and rewarded me with a smile or a frown for my manners. I learned that a gentle slurp of broth made her smile like the sun, mixing sauce with rice was acceptable and that biting off a noodle got me a shocked frown. As time has gone on, I’ve grown to understand that family eating is the ideal, slurping is a sign of enjoyment and a compliment to the chef, the Chinese don’t view white rice the same as the Japanese and that biting/breaking a noodle is a sign of shortening life. No one at Pho79 has said anything about my slurping, huntched over my bowl with a spoon in my left and a pair of chopstickes in my right hand, looking like I could stick my face in the bowl at any minute!. I just don’t know what manners I should be following and I want to compliment the staff and the cooks in a way they understand, beyond just telling them. I also have a dream (which will probably never come true, but who knows) of eating my way through SE Asia and I’d like to arm up in advance.

  4. Cuong Huynh 13 September, 2011 at 01:17 Reply

    Bear: Well said and thanks for sharing your thoughts! If anything, i think you are right on with your understanding and attitude toward the most basic of human behavior: eating and the enjoyment of eating. See you at a pho shop sometime soon.

  5. Barbara 20 September, 2011 at 20:37 Reply

    Hi… I love pho but so far have stuck with chicken. After having had it approximately 10 times, I’m unable to try anything different…so addicted have I become to this previously unknown and strangely hypnotizing flavor combination. I’ve resorted to picking mint to garnish any leftovers but have asked my husband to plant Thai basil in Spring so I can be happy, lol. Everyone seems to talk about beef here so I will resolve to try it soon. I’m not the best cook but would love to attempt my own version someday. It’s getting expensive for takeout and my daughter wonders
    why we go over and over again to the same vietnamese place. She wants to branch out but I play the parent card and say when she pays she can pick. I really enjoyed reading about pho and am happy to discover my manners were instinctually good…although I did bite off my noodles…will stop that from here on out. It’s so relaxing to have a slurpy good time and not be embarassed about my family’s noisemaking. Thanks for the educational experience…oh why oh why did I marry a pirogi maker? Give me pho or give me death!

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