For decades I thought that the flat rice noodles that went into pho noodle soup and stir-fries were only available in dried form. That’s how we bought them in the United States. About 15 years ago, those “banh pho” rice noodles (named such in Vietnamese because they go into pho noodle soup) started being sold fresh in Cryovac packages at Asian markets. My mom still bought the dried kind. Then one day, I asked her about fresh versus dried banh pho rice noodles and she responded, “They were always fresh in Vietnam. We had no dried banh pho when we lived there.”
Wait, had I been living a faux pho life all these years? No, child, the dried ones available here are good and convenient to keep on hand when you have a neighborhood noodle vendor around the corner. Duh, like pho. Indeed, go to Vietnam today and you’ll find freshly made noodles sold at markets and used at noodle joints. In the U.S., fresh noodles aren’t as readily available, but there are dried noodles that cook up wonderfully.
Our conversation earlier this week on defining faux pho spurred me to continue my (occasional) series of posts of Vietnamese noodles. Also, a couple of days ago, I noticed a young woman struggle with trying to find banh pho noodles at an Asian market. She got flat noodles but they were made of mung bean starch. I hope this guide will help you buy and use this ubiquitous Vietnamese noodle.
Banh Pho Buying Guide: Dried and fresh rice noodles
Available in small, medium, and large widths, banh pho noodles are available dried and fresh. The dried variety, technically called banh pho kho, is easier to find cooks up to a terrific chewy texture that’s nearly as good as fresh. Keep several fourteen- or sixteen-ounce packages of each width in the pantry to make noodle dishes on demand. If the sizes are not printed on the packaging, think of the noodles as Italian pasta:
- Small is the width of linguine (1/8 inch) or narrower: use for noodle soup
- Medium is roughly the width of fettuccine (1/4 inch): use for noodle soup or stir-frying
- Large is about the width of pappardelle (1/2 inch): use for pan-frying or stir-frying
If available, try fresh banh pho (banh pho tuoi) stocked in the refrigerated sections of Chinese and Viet markets. The extra thin (about 1/16 inch wide) variety is for pho noodle soup and only requires blanching in boiling water to cook; these noodles keep well for a week in their Cryovac packaging. They look a bit gnarly and are very long. It’s okay to cut them in half.
If you shop in a Vietnamese enclave, you may find 1/4-inch wide freshly made, soft banh pho sold on Stryrofoam trays. Like the other fresh rice noodles mentioned below, these are typically not refrigerated. That would harden them and defeat their freshness. These freshly made banh pho (aka “Pad Thai Noodles") noodles are splendid in noodle soup and stir-fries. There is no need to blanch them in boiling water as they are ready to add to a bowl or dropped into a wok.
Nearby there are usually wide fresh rice noodles that are the same as thick Chinese fun noodles. Often labeled banh hu tieu (the Viet term for Chinese rice noodles), they’re just banh pho. Though I seldom use them, uncut sheets of fresh rice noodles are called banh uot, which may be used to roll up foods such as grilled beef with lemongrass. Freshly made banh pho sold on Styrofoam trays are best if purchased soft and at room temperature, essentially soon after they’re delivered to the market. Eat them the day you buy them for an amazing taste treat.
Where to buy banh pho rice noodles:
- Dried and maybe fresh too: Chinese and Southeast Asian markets
- Dried only: Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, check Asian/ethnic/Oriental aisle at supermarkets
Suggested brands: Three Ladies, Caravelle, Bangkok Elephant