A quick way to offend someone of Vietnamese descent is to compare this most treasured dish to a bowl of ramen. Yes, pho has broth and noodles, too, but the similarities stop there.
Chef Jason Peterson of Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar describes ramen as “the soul food of Japan.” Ramen is intended to be hearty and stick to your bones. Pho is well-loved for being just the opposite. It is fresh and light, often eaten as a breakfast meal in Vietnam because it energizes and satisfies without weighing you down.
Ramen broths can vary substantially, but the most popular and well-known broth is tonkotsu. It’s a rich, opaque, milky broth typically made by boiling pork bones for hours to extract all the pork fat, marrow and collagen. Pho broth is closer to a French consommé, simmered gently for hours with beef bones and aromatic spices such as star anise, cloves and cinnamon. The end result is nearly translucent and delicately flavored.
The noodles also are quite different. Ramen noodles can vary widely—curly or straight, thin or thick, fresh or dried—whereas pho noodles are always the same: fresh, stick straight and made from rice flour.
Ramen can be topped with anything, and chefs love to play around with these accoutrements. A soy-infused egg, pork belly or cha siu (pork shoulder), bamboo shoots, scallion and Parmesan all could top your bowl of ramen, whereas pho is almost always served the exact same way, with a set of traditional ingredients. Raw onion, scallion and cilantro top the steaming bowl of pho, and a standard plate of bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime and sliced chile peppers will typically be served on the side.
In the end, it’s a straightforward distinction. Ramen comes as a ready-to-eat bowl, whereas pho is all about tradition, the same soup served with the same ingredients and diners customizing and creating the flavors they prefer.
For great ramen around Madison, check out Morris Ramen on King Street or Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar on Williamson Street.
Lauren Rudersdorf is co-owner of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm, a freelance writer and food blogger at The Leek and The Carrot.