Pho: a soup made of beef or chicken broth and rice noodles. This dictionary definition falls FAR short of the Pho experiece. And if you've never tried this Vietnamese staple dish then you're definitely missing out!
The term pho actually refers to the noodles, not the soup. There are hundreds of different soups found around Vietnam. But pho is made with pristine white rice flour noodles that are made daily and sold in markets. But, really, everybody in Vietnam judges the pho by its broth. A good pho broth is crystal clear, like a French consommé, and packs two punches. For pho bo (beef), there’s the underlying earthiness brought on by the long simmering of bones, oxtail and flank. For pho ga (chicken), the entire bird is used. The second component of the broth is spice and aromatics. In pho, cinnamon and star anise lead the charge, with assists from cloves and cardamom. Roasted and/or charred onions and ginger are the key vegetable components. It’s simply the standard. In the broth typically rests a minimal amount of meat.
Then there's the garnish! The garnishes are what many people associate with pho. It’s oftentimes a ridiculous salad of herbs and vegetables that arrives to the table either piled in a separate basket, or floating atop the broth, noodles and cuts of meat. Understanding how these garnishes work is key to understanding pho. First, take a sip of the broth before messing with the mountain of greenery. Sip the broth and savor the complexity. Appreciate the time that has gone into this pristine liquid. Now you can turn your attention to the garnishes which can range from Thai basil (sharp and biting) and bean sprouts (fresh and crunchy) to Thai chili peppers (crimson red with the heat to match), green onions (onion-y), coriander and culantro (not cilantro but a flat herb that is best described as having more bite and pepper than the often mistaken cilantro). For pho, herbs are best ripped up and sprinkled into the broth, as opposed to the entire leaf being submerged. The play between the bitter greens and the sweet-and-sour broth, with noodles playing their key role, is magic. **Infomation about Pho from Food Republic's Matt Rodbard.