Ann Tran from Saigon Noodles says there’s no magic trick to eating pho, but I would have to disagree.
“Eat however you feel comfortable,” she tells me. But even as I’m armed with a set of silverware, a short, broad soup spoon and a pair of chopsticks, it’s not instinctive to me how to approach this bowl of piping-hot soup served with a plate of herbs and other items on the side.
Tran explains she always begins with the bean sprouts, tossing them into the liquid as soon as the soup is brought out so the heat from the broth gently cooks the sprouts.
“[Then] you use both hands to eat the pho,” Tran says. Your dominant hand holds the chopsticks and picks up some noodles or meat. Forks are fine for non-chopstick users, she says. Keep your face close to the bowl to savor the aroma and avoid splattering as you chop long noodles with your teeth and they splash back into the bowl. Your other hand follows shortly with a spoonful of the fragrant broth. Ideally, your spoon caught some of the raw onions sprinkled on top. Those first few slurps of broth should be unaltered. Pho broth is subtly complex, and you want to appreciate each chef’s style before you begin customizing things.
Once you’ve savored those first few bites, you can start adding whatever is on the table. Add some Thai basil or another herb for freshness. Squeeze the wedge of lime to freshen things up. If you like heat, toss in the jalapeños and swirl the broth so chile infuses the whole bowl. If you feel the broth needs a bit more salt, pour in a dash of fish sauce.
“Never soy sauce. It’s too strong. It overwhelms,” Tran says.
She rarely adds condiments directly to the broth. She doesn’t like to ruin the broth that took probably 6-10 hours to make. She’s much more likely to pour some hoisin or sriracha onto a plate. Using her chopsticks, she dips a piece of beef into one of the sauces and then follows with a spoonful of broth. You continue biting and slurping and adjusting the flavors until nothing remains or your belly fills up, whichever comes first. It will likely be the latter.
Lauren Rudersdorf is co-owner of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm, a freelance writer and food blogger at The Leek and The Carrot.