For lovers pho ― the noodle soup that has become synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine the world over ― the debate on proper pronunciation is a heated one. Food words are constantly getting botched, mispronounced by people who don’t speak the language but also by people who just don’t give a damn or know any better. Pho is high on the list of commonly mispronounced words. Some people are adamant that the “o” is long, while others contend the soup should be pronounced as “fuh.”
While the origin of pho’s true pronunciation may be debatable, the pronunciation itself is not. Pho is pronounced “fuh,” no matter how you slice it. If you want to arm yourself with backup the next time this debate rolls around at the dinner table, here’s what you need to know:
Pho refers to the noodles ― flat, long rice noodles ― not the soup itself, although it is commonly associated with the dish as a unit. The two main types of soup are pho bo, which is made with beef broth, and pho ga, made with chicken broth. If you ask for just pho in Vietnam, it’ll commonly be understood as Pho Bo. A hearty dish, pho is often eaten for breakfast, usually outside of the house at market stands or stalls.
The noodle soup was popularized in the mid 1800s in the northern city of Hanoi. Its origins, including the origin of its pronunciation, are widely disputed, however. Some scholars believe the French are responsible for the soup and argue their position based on two points. One, the French are largely credited with popularizing beef in Vietnam, a country that had previously favored pork and shrimp. Thus the beef-based soup is said to have materialized under French colonial rule, which started in 1858. The fact that the French made beef popular in Vietnam is also disputed, however, with some people claiming that the Chinese are responsible for an influx of beef consumption in Vietnam.
Another rationale for the French origin of pho comes from the dish pot-au-feu, a classic Burgundian beef stew made with vegetables. Some people believe the Vietnamese adapted this French dish under colonial rule, and that the word ― and pronunciation of ― pho comes from the word feu. Still others believe the word comes from the Chinese word for rice noodles: fen.
As author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” Andrew Lam explains, this indiscernible and quite possibly multifaceted origin story makes the soup more Vietnamese than anything else. Because of Vietnam’s long and varied history of colonial occupation, the country is a verifiable melting pot of international culinary influences. This makes it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to tease out distinct heritages like beef’s rise in Vietnam or the root of a single word. So next time you call this iconic soup “fuh,” appreciating the varied roots of the ultimately comforting dish will be the greatest defense of all.