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“Pho is such a special dish. It's the one that truly represents Vietnam and its people. If you're coming to my house, and I want to introduce Vietnamese food to you, it would be the first dish that I would make”. – Thuy Pham, The Little Viet Kitchen

“Pho is such a special dish,” says Thuy Pham, owner and head chef of The Little Viet Kitchen, “it's the one that truly represents Vietnam and its people. If you're coming to my house, and I want to introduce Vietnamese food to you, it would be the first dish that I would make”.

We chatted to Thuy to discover more about Vietnam’s national dish, including its origins, regional differences and her top secrets for making authentic Vietnamese pho.

What is Pho and where did it come from?

Pho is a broth, usually made from beef or chicken bones and spices, with rice noodles and thinly sliced meat. Although its exact origins are unknown, it is believed to have been created in northern Vietnam for the French, when they colonised the country in the 1880s. In fact, it is argued that the name pho (pronounced ‘fuh’, but with rising intonation) comes from the French pot-au-feu, meaning beef stew. Pho is traditionally a breakfast dish eaten to provide a boost of protein, carbohydrates and nourishing broth to hard-working farmers before a day on the farm, but nowadays, it is so popular that it is eaten at all times of the day.

How does pho differ across Vietnam?

Although always made up of broth, noodles and meat, pho differs slightly in flavour as you travel across Vietnam. Thuy explains, “In general, food in Northern Vietnam is a little saltier, in central Vietnam is spicy and down south, where I'm from, is slightly sweeter”. These tastes are reflected in the flavour of the broth found in each region. The toppings also vary, with northern Vietnamese pho usually finished with just spring onions, while in the south, particularly the area on the Mekong Delta where Thuy is from, it’s generally garnished with “sweet (Thai) basil and coriander, as well as onions, sriracha and hoisin sauce.”

At the Little Viet Kitchen, Thuy’s pho reflects these regional differences. She explains, “at first, we had Southern Vietnamese customers coming in saying it was too salty, while others would demand more spice.” So Thuy worked on a compromise, adapting her recipe (originally passed down by her mother) to create a broth which she now describes as 'perfectly balanced’.

What are the secrets to making authentic Vietnamese pho?

“The secret to the best pho is the clarity of the broth. It’s so important”, Thuy explains. To achieve a clear stock for her phoe, the beef or chicken bones must first be thoroughly cleaned. This is a long process which involves soaking them in water with fresh lemon, draining and soaking again for a further two hours, before bringing to the boil and skimming. It’s only after this that the broth is simmered and Thuy adds her other ingredients, which include ginger and onions, charred for extra depth of flavour, as well as a touch of rock sugar and toasted aromatic spices including star anise, cinnamon and coriander seeds.

“The key to a good broth is putting the spices in at the right time and then making sure you take them out at the right time as well,” says Thuy, “because if you leave them in too long, the broth becomes bitter.” After this, beef brisket or chicken breasts are cooked in the broth, then removed ready to be sliced or shredded and served on top of the pho. Thuy’s final secret for achieving a beautifully clear stock is to not stir it. “Once you put the bones into the pot, you don't move them at all,” she says, “instead you turn up the heat and use the bubbles to mix the ingredients.” Lastly, the broth is seasoned with fish sauce, before being poured over rice noodles and served with the shredded chicken and a variety of toppings including fresh coriander and mint, lime, red onions, hoisin sauce and sriracha.

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