Instant Pho: How Good Are They?

Updated 04-01-15. instant-pho-bo-bowl-300x225Americans may look at instant ramen noodles a little funny, but in truth these cheap dry noodles in a cup or a bag play a very important part in sustaining the Asian families especially during hard times. The Japanese love noodles as much, or maybe more than anyone else, so it's no surprise a Japanese named Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen back in 1958. Today Vietnamese pho gets the same instant treatment in the form of instant pho, or phở ăn liền (ready-to-eat pho.)

But first a few words about the instant ramen itself. Asians know that instant ramen is imitation noodles so there's no point criticizing it. For Asians living in Asia, instant ramen can be cheap and quick meals when you can't have the real thing - due to a variety of reasons, economic included. For Asians living outside of Asia, particularly in Western countries, instant ramen stands for something quick and dependable until the real meal. Instant ramen is the self-serve Asian fast food, and to most Asians, it is the comfort home food, pretty much in the same way peanut butter and jelly sandwich is to Americans. Except that many adult Asians enjoy eating it too. Nowadays my guess is it's also a popular college dorm food.

Instant Pho

There is a reason why instant ramen, and instant pho, took the world by storm. In today’s fast-paced life, instant ramen caters to a need to feed and satisfy hunger in less than five minutes. After all, all you need to do with instant ramen is to boil the noodles in water, add the contents of the packet of seasoning, and voila!  In recent years instant ramen even comes in foam cups or bowls where the only thing you need to do is to add hot water and let it sit for a few minutes. Witness the Cup-Noodles popularity.

So instant pho is riding the instant ramen momentum. In fact many Vietnamese dishes do get the instant treatment, including the rice porridge! In many Asian supermarkets and grocery stores, you'll find sections full of instant ramen offerings. Pho bo, pho ga, pho chay (vegetarian version) are all available. For the large Viet consumer segment in the U.S. (and I would guess the same for Australia and Europe) instant pho and other Viet-dish based instant varieties are now the top choices.

pho-ga-an-lieninstant-pho-boxes3
pho-chay-boxespho-bo-an-lien

Preparing Instant Pho

Preparation, what preparation? It's instant pho! With modern convenience, all you need is hot water and 3-5 minutes of your time. Actually, your instant pho experience can be greatly enhanced by adding freshly chopped green onions and cilantro before "cooking" it. Also there's no question about instant pho's authenticity or taste - it's not authentic but you can still taste traces of pho from it. Many people add other ingredients to increase their eating enjoyment. My personal favorites include broccoli or a variety of different Chinese cabbages like bok choy, and leftover Chinese BBQ Char siu, if you have it.

Instant Pho - the Good and the Bad

Now, the question is: Is instant pho bad? The answer is: Not necessary.

Here's how I look at it. If you treat instant pho like a snack, then it does its job pretty well - all snacks are bad anyway. If you see instant pho as your last resort, then it is great and you're thankful they made such cheap foods! And if you consider instant pho "junk food," then having a little guilty pleasure occasionally is okay too. The smart instant pho eater (or of any instant ramen for that matter,) however, do look out for the amount of servings, fat and sodium in each package. Here's what I mean.

If you look at the Nutritional Facts very very closely, you'll see what you're really consuming. In the first sample below, each bowl contains 2 servings, with 380 calories, and 110 calories from fat! Furthermore, you're also getting 12g (18%) Total Fat, 6g (30%) Saturated Fat, and a whopping 2472 mg (104%) Sodium in every bowl! Pretty sneaky that they use 1/2 bowl serving size. I've seen 1/3 bowl serving size labels!

instant-pho-nutrition-facts1

In the next sample, each bowl contains 1 serving, 280 calories, and 110 calories from fat. You're also getting 12g (18%) Total Fat, 6g (30%) Saturated Fat, and 1950 mg (81%) Sodium in every bowl. A little better, but still pretty bad.

instant-pho-nutrition-facts2

So the question is not if instant pho is good or bad, but if it is good for your health. Eating too many of these bowls (and other instant ramen) will probably kill you faster than the time it takes to debate whether they taste good. Remember that scene when the Sundance Kid says "I can't swim," and Butch Cassidy says "Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you!" The sodium (MSG) itself is not as bad as many people make it out to be, according to the Mayo Clinique and the FDA "What is MSG? Is it bad for you?", but the amount packed in there is way over the top.

Vietnamese culinary author Andrea Nguyen did a taste-off of instant pho available in Asian markets in her community. What was her conclusion? It is that instant pho tastes somewhat more authentic than instant ramen, and that she would not mind keeping a stash of instant pho in her cupboard if she wants a quick fix.

I, and I'm sure many others, do the same thing too.

Originally published 07-31-09.

19 comments

  1. Tim 20 August, 2009 at 07:41 Reply

    Only question I have is….where do I get a case??? That is so cool. Instant Pho…never knew it existed. One bowl and you have your sodium for the week.

  2. Cuong Huynh 23 August, 2009 at 00:13 Reply

    Hi Tim. You can get a case of these bad boys at most Asian supermarkets, though I think you can also buy them in separate bowls. What I normally do is to eat just the noodles and sip some soup, but really leaving a lot of broth with all that sodium. Ha ha I wouldn’t clean the bowl like you normally do at restaurants!

  3. Steven 17 January, 2011 at 21:32 Reply

    I usually have instant ramen a couple of times for lunch at work because it’s quick and easy to make and fairly tasty (and I’m too lazy to make and bring lunch from home). But I’ve been trying to find a substitute because that fried ramen is loaded in fat. So I’ve been looking at rice noodle soups since they are not fried and have much less fat. I recently tried the Vifon instant pho, and I have to say it’s a winner! I found them for 50 cents a package at my local H-Mart. I found the broth to be surprisingly flavorful considering it’s an instant package.

  4. Cuong 19 January, 2011 at 00:32 Reply

    Steven: Thanks for the tip on Vifon instant pho. I’ll have to give it a try. I know newer products are a lot more sophisticated both in their packaging and taste. Of course they’re not the real things, but we’re getting closer and closer all the time.

  5. jessica 20 February, 2011 at 03:56 Reply

    i love good pho i usually eat it at a local restaurant 1-2 times a week. I was looking for a way to make pho at home that didnt take like 6 hours to make. i went to ranch 99 and bought instant pho. they only had one brand of instant pho the label is ‘kung fu’ and on the package it said ‘pho an lien pho huong vi thit bo’. i got the beef flavor. i just ate it right now for the first time and its pretty bad not bad enough to throw away but id rate it like a 2/3 out of 10. just looking at the broth it looks sooo greasy and just overall nothing about it tasted like pho except the rice noodles but didn’t matter because the broth took over the taste. i didnt put in the dried fake beef it looked like it was guna be bad. i wish there was more brands to try out at my local asian store though. overall this is something i wouldnt buy again and is not my quick fix of pho that im looking for

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