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. chuynh 3 August, 2009 at 09:21 Reply

    You’re a brave soul. And it’s great what you’re doing. There are zillions of other ways something like shrimp paste can be used in other dishes, many of which I myself normally won’t touch 🙂 In the end, though, we all have our biases, and what works for each individual is all that matters. The main differences you see in the foods are all mainly due to regional variations, so if people are aware of this possibility on the way in then they will have a more “pleasant” experience.

    And you’re right, if you find a place you like then building a relationship is great. Not many non-Viet people know this, but the servers do discuss about who they served andreally appreciate a knowledgeable client like you.

    Though I wonder. Do you have the urge to keep trying new things in hope to discover another gem, or do you normally stay “safe” even though an adventurous eater?

  2. Inthewater 3 August, 2009 at 09:28 Reply

    Some days, i just like to “keep it safe” and go for a big bowl of standard pho. Other days, i ask what the server thinks is good, and go for it. I am not up to the levels of those guys on the T.V. shows that will eat darn near anything, but I like to keep trying new and interesting stuff.

    Sadly, barring a few standard meat and rice dishes, most of the menu has been covered. That was why I started asking about the specials, which sometimes are not on the menu. Still haven’t had anything that wasn’t at least good, though I did try some ladna (I think) at one place, big 1″ wide thick, slippery, rubbery “noodles” that wasn’t really my thing. Too hard to eat. Do you have any recommendations on new things to try?

  3. luckyfatima 14 August, 2009 at 11:02 Reply

    I never minded mi goi if it was doctored up a bit with fresh ingredients, but since I love pho so much I was afraid to try the insta-pho and be severely disappointed because I have a delicious pho taste in mind. You have inspired me to give it a try. Is there a particular brand that you recommend?

  4. Inthewater 14 August, 2009 at 13:10 Reply

    I guess is it Lad Na noodles, or Rad Na noodles. A Thai style thick noodle?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rad_na

    It was just too thick for me.

    As for the other things you have recommended, I have tried almost everything on the menu. 🙂 I love the broken rice dishes and dry bun bowls with various meats and toppings. Some really great stuff.

  5. chuynh 14 August, 2009 at 17:18 Reply

    @luckyfatima: Yeah mi gói (or pho gói) – gói means small bag or package – can be pretty good. I’ve had my share eating them as a little school boy and still do even now 🙂 The cheap ones remain in bags, while “higher quality” ones are now in cups or bowls made of plastic or foam.

    And I’m with you about adding additional ingredients. For me at a minimum would have to be some green onions/cilantro. Next step up would be fresh bok choy and some sliced pork roll (chả lụa or giò chả.) As long as you keep in mind the level of sodium (in the soup base) and fat (in the noodle and also soup base) then you will be alright.

    If you decide to try insta-pho, be aware that 1) I take no responsibility for how bad it may be 😉 2) do not compare to real pho because it is not, but by itself it’s decent noodle that tries to imitate pho (good for filling empty stomaches) and 3) don’t eat too much of it lol. I personally cannot recommend a brand (none that I really like) but Andrea Nguyen’s article (http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2008/07/instant-pho-noodles-taste-off.html) maybe helpful.

  6. chuynh 14 August, 2009 at 17:27 Reply

    @Inthewater: Wow if you have tried them all then I’m very impressed. Though I’d have to say that many of those dishes do not lend themselves well to be had everyday or even regularly, while others are definitely daily fare. For many Vietnamese, including yours truly, we tend to stick with our favorites. Comfort food if you will. Are you on a mission to try everything at least once? There must be some that you’d rather not have again?

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