About a week ago, Bon Appétit published a video featuring a white man from Philadelphia to introduce the world to pho, a popular Vietnamese noodle soup. Pho has only been around for a century, so I'm really glad people are finally catching up to things, just like cupping or adding raw eggs to ramen.
The video sparked a debate about whether it's proper to add hoisin and Sriracha sauces into the soup, and it also left many people angry and confused.
So as someone who is actually from Vietnam, I thought I'd set the record straight.
Here's a little fun fact about pho: It's a breakfast food (surprise!). Many restaurants in Vietnam open as early as 5 a.m. every day, and pho is available until around 9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. So if you sleep till noon, you're kinda SOL.
I grew up in the South, so the pho I know of might not be the same as what Northern Vietnamese people are familiar with, but it consists of rice noodles, cooked beef, tender, beef balls, raw beef, absolutely no peanuts (or dried onions, for the love of god!) and the broth, which is the make-or-break element of pho.
The pho broth is an art form of itself, and mastering the seasoning is a difficult feat. Like several other Vietnamese dishes, restaurant owners do not disclose their recipe, which run in their families for generations.
The broth takes a long time to make — usually up to seven to eight hours. It starts with boiling the meat bones in water in medium heat until the hot water gets more flavorful. After that, ingredients like fish sauce, Hue's ginger, onions, garlic, cinnamon, amomum tsaoko and many other traditional Vietnamese medicinal spices are added.
A lot of the broth ingredients are not available fresh in the United States. Browsing through the Vietnamese supermarkets, you'll likely find several seasoning packages of pho broth, some in cube form, some in a pack of dried leaves, and sometimes it comes in a can.
These seasoning packages reduce a lot of prep time when you make pho at home (which I have also done), and it's likely the way that many Vietnamese restaurants create it. Even the rice noodles in pho are not fresh. Fresh rice noodles have an extremely soft texture that almost melts in your mouth within seconds. The ones you get in the States also come dried in a package.
So back to the question: "Does adding Sriracha and Hoisin sauce actually ruin pho?"
Maybe, if it's an authentic place that has access to all the fresh Vietnamese medicinal ingredients with a specific recipe of their own. There is a place in Vietnam called Pho Phu, a small pho business owned by a small family near my house growing up, and it remains my all-time favorite pho place. The soup is so flavorful, rice noodles are incredibly soft; the beef is sweet and tender. Every time I go there, I drink all the broth, and get a second bowl.
But if you live in the United States, it's unlikely you're going to get anything remotely close to perfection, even from a Vietnamese-owned business. Not to mention, ethnic food in the United States has the tendency to be a little blander, so it can adapt to a variety of palettes and tastes. Adding Sriracha and hoisin sauce can make the already bland soup feel more like home, more like what it should be.
So the next time you add bean sprouts and Thai basil in your pho, have a taste, and if you realize you'd like something a little more flavorful with a kick, add hoisin sauce and Sriracha, before squeezing them into a separate small plate to dip your meat in. If you like it bland, eat it as is.
Moral of this story? You do you.