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Pho vs. Ramen: The Differences Between these Asian Soups

A bowl divided into pho and ramen with toppings

The popularity of noodle soup dishes from Asia is unmistakable and the level of devotion each person has to their favorite soup is quite remarkable. In particular, pho and ramen seem to be popping up everywhere, and for good reason. These soups are economical and full of delicious flavor.

There is sometimes confusion around the differences between pho and ramen. Fear not! We have some easy answers that will help you distinguish between phenomenal pho and remarkable ramen.

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The Origin Story

Let’s start with the basics–where do these soups come from?

Pho (pronounced “fuh”) originated in the 20th century in northern Vietnam, an intersection of several cultural influences. Pho is traditionally made with beef, but today you'll find a variety of protein options. This may surprise Americans but pho is actually a common breakfast food in Vietnam. This warm meal will start the day off right and it's super filling—thanks to rice noodles and robust broth. Today in Vietnam, you can find pho on almost every street corner, whether from a street food vendor or a restaurant. And many pho restaurants have popped up around the world making it one of the most well-known Vietnamese dishes. Learn more about The History of Pho from James Beard award winner Andrea Nguyen.

Ramen (pronounced “raa-muhn”) originated in the 19th or 20th century and is thought to have been introduced to Japan by Chinese immigrants. The earliest versions of ramen were made with wheat noodles in a rich, pork-based broth and topped with roast pork. Ramen was popular among the working-class, as a cheap and filling meal, and was served in street stalls and markets throughout Japan. In 1958, Nissin Foods introduced what we all know to be a college student’s best friend and the 10 cent sensation—instant ramen—and the world was hooked.

Broth & Preparation

Although they may look similar, pho and ramen broth have some key differences that give each their own distinct flavor and characteristics.

Broth & Preparation

Pho, in its most basic form (pre-garnish!), consists of a light broth, rice noodles, and protein such as steak, brisket, tripe (cow stomach), or meatballs. Traditionally, the broth is made by simmering beef bones, oxtail, charred onions, and ginger for many hours. The broth is really where most of the flavor comes from, so adding bold spices like Star Anise, Cardamom, and Coriander Seeds is essential and gives pho its—well, pho flavor.

Side Note: Star Anise is likely to be your new secret ingredient for all your broth and soup making. It has a rich, aromatic, sweet-spice flavor that immediately adds depth and complexity. But the flavors will continue to build as long as your Star Anise is in your broth, so you'll probably want to pull it out after about 10-20 minutes.

There's nothing like the rich flavors you can build by simmering broth for hours (regardless of what kind of broth you're making!) but we know that's not always a realistic proposition, especially for a weeknight dinner. Lucky for you, we developed a 40-Minute Pho recipe that gives you those familiar pho flavors in a lot less time.

Ramen broth is richer and fattier, generally made from boiled pork or chicken bones, kombu (kelp), bonito flakes (dried tuna), ginger, garlic, and miso (fermented soybean paste). However, just like pho, ramen’s flavor depends on its broth preparation. Ramen broth tends to be slightly thicker and cloudier due to the miso and collagen from the pork bones. By adding all of the flavors and simmering them anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, you are able to extract every bit of essence to make a complex, delicious, traditional ramen broth.

Again, while there's no exact substitute, we’ve also developed a simple and flavorful Black Garlic Dumpling Ramen recipe for you to try yourself. Some of the ingredients might be unfamiliar but any Asian market is likely to have everything you need!

Ingredients & Toppings

Ingredients & Toppings

The final step before you tuck into your pho or ramen is to add as many toppings as possible! This is where you can get creative and everyone can customize their own bowl. While it's not traditionally how ramen is served, we'd suggest assembling an assortment of toppings in small bowls and let everyone garnish their hearts out!

Pho is traditionally simpler when it comes to what toppings make a good bowl. When you visit a Vietnamese restaurant, you’re typically given a bowl of broth, rice noodles, and meat (of your choice) and a platter piled with toppings...then it's up to you! Traditional toppings include a variety of herbs (like Thai basil, mint, and cilantro), bean sprouts, sliced fresh Jalapeño or Fresno chiles, fish sauce, and hot chili oil. In the United States, your topping choices will likely also include lime wedges and Sriracha. This allows you to customize your pho to your personal taste and is one reason why pho can be described in so many different ways.

Ramen is generally served with all the toppings in tow. The typical topping lineup depends on broth choice—Tonkotshu (pork bone broth), Shoyu (Soy sauce broth), or Miso. Common toppings include Chashu (barbecued pork), green onion, nori (seaweed), pickled radish, fish cakes, soft-boiled eggs, chile peppers, carrots, corn, and bean sprouts. Regardless of how the ramen is topped and the ingredients involved, you can rest assured that each inclusion is purposeful towards creating a cohesive dish.

Ingredients & Toppings

The Recap

Ok, we've given you a lot to chew on, so here's the side-by-side breakdown for these two popular soups.

Recap of Pho vs. Ramen differences

Now that you’re an expert on the differences between pho and ramen, take your new-found knowledge out into the world and see these soups in a new light. Grab a friend or two, visit a pho or ramen shop, and have your own pho vs ramen discussion—because nothing brings a group of people together like a hot bowl of soup.

Shop Asian Spices

The flavors of the world offer unlimited possibility. These Asian spices will help you create delicious meals, whether you want pho, ramen, Asian-style curries, Sweet Ginger Pork Dumplings, Tingly Szechwan Chile Crisp, bibambap, egg rolls, and so much more.

Do you prefer pho or ramen? Tell us in the comments below and tag us on Instagram with photos of your favorite soup or find a new soup recipe!

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