Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup (“Pho”)

27 February 2014

Post image for Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup (“Pho”)

Pho could perhaps be described as the national dish of Vietnam. But what many people don’t know is that it is predominantly a breakfast dish in Vietnam. In some parts of the world, breakfast might be a bowl of cold cereal to some. In Vietnam, however, they like to kick-start their day with an aromatic noodle broth, full of flavour and texture to awaken the senses.

On one of my trips to Vietnam as a small child to visit my maternal grandmother, I would go into town with my uncle in the early hours of the morning to seek out a little pho stand where we would grab some takeaway for breakfast. Perched on the back of my uncle’s motorcycle, I would watch the pho lady quickly assemble our order, placing steaming hot noodles with meat into one plastic bag, and sealing the broth in another plastic bag (much like transporting a newly-acquired goldfish). Once home, we would quickly empty the contents of the plastic bags into waiting bowls before grabbing our chopsticks and diving in. It was perhaps the only time I ever ate pho for breakfast, and my mother says it was the only time I ever enjoyed breakfast as a child.

pho beef noodle soup 3

Pronounced “fuh” or “fur” (not “foe”), the name and inspiration for this dish is thought to have its origins from the French pot-au-feu. It is believed that, during the French occupation of Vietnam, the French consumed large quantities of beef in their diet and the resourceful Vietnamese cooks used the scraps and bones from the slaughtered cattle to create a local version of the French meaty stew.

Pho was one of the first dishes that my mum taught me to cook at home. Like her Vietnamese Beef & Carrot Stew, she uses a spice mix readily available from the Vietnamese grocer to flavour her broth, a medly of dried spices which are conveniently wrapped in muslin cloth for quick use. Upon moving to Switzerland, I no longer had access to these spice mixes and started to look to cookbooks for tips on how to create my own, a process which helped me to learn more about the origins and evolution of this classic dish.

Pho is believed to have originated in the north of Vietnam where, like many dishes from the north, it is simple and uncomplicated; a pho bac is often simply noodles, broth, slices of beef and minimal garnish. In the south of Vietnam, however, their pho is more like their people – a bit fancier and more show-offy. They like their bowls to be more generously sized with more texture added to the dish, such as with the inclusion of beef meatballs and tripe, and pimped with bold flavours courtesy of a selection of fresh herbs and chillies.

pho beef noodle soup 2

But like many noodle soup dishes in Vietnam, the final flavouring is always up to the eater. Any serious establishment serving pho will always offer a plate of garnish alongside, generously piled with fresh coriander (cilantro), spring onions (scallions), Thai basil, bean sprouts, chillies and lemon or lime wedges. Sauce accompaniments typically include hoisin sauce and Sriracha sauce for dipping your meat into, although I know many who also add these sauces to their broth, along with fish sauce to taste and sometimes even freshly ground black pepper. At the end of the day, how much or how little you want in your bowl of pho is up to you.

Many Vietnamese restaurants will offer several options for pho as follows:
Pho Tai - Served with very thin slices of raw beef which are lightly cooked by the hot broth in the bowl.
Pho Chin - Served with slices of cook beef brisket which would typically be slow-cooked in the pho broth.
Pho Bo Vien - Served with beef meatballs.
Pho Dac Biet - Dac Biet means “special” or “the works” in Vietnamese, so this version can vary from restaurant to restaurant, but typically includes a combination of all of the above.

So although the final flavouring and garnish of a bowl of pho is up to the individual eater, the soup base remains the most important element of the dish, recipes for which can be as varied as the toppings.

pho beef noodle soup ingredients 3

In Secrets of the Red Lantern, the Nguyen’s family recipe for pho includes beef bones, beef flank and chicken which is slowly simmered overnight to create a complex, meaty broth.

Lien Yeomans, an iconic figure of Vietnamese cuisine in Australia, shares her recipe for pho in her memoir, Green Papaya. She also uses beef bones and beef brisket in her broth, but with the inclusion of pork bones for added sweetness. Interestingly, she only adds roasted spices to the broth in the last hour of cooking to prevent the stock from becoming bitter.

Writing for Saveur magazine in the US, Andrea Nguyen, an acclaimed Vietnamese cookbook author, travelled to Vietnam in search of the perfect pho, which she found at the Spices Garden Restaurant at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. The secret, she discovered, was that the chefs only seasoned the broth with salt while it was simmering, and fish sauce was only added at the end of cooking.

But one recipe which struck a note with me was Luke Nguyen’s recipe in his latest cookbook, The Food of Vietnam, partly because it was less complicated than others I had encountered, and partly because it reminded me of my mother’s recipe. My mother only uses oxtail as the protein base for her pho broth which produces, I think, a sweeter and more subtle-tasting broth. And as I happen to love the taste and texture of beef brisket, I like to add a large piece or two to my broth base which, in turn, adds extra depth to the stock. Luke Nguyen’s recipe is remarkably similar and, on this occasion, I followed his recipe and arrived at a wonderfully flavoured broth, spiced differently to how I would normally make it, but delicious nonetheless.

Here is Luke Nguyen in his show, Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam, where he is shown how to make a northern version of pho in Hanoi. The ingredients and technique are slightly different to his recipe below, but it is interesting and helpful to see how the dish is prepared.

Given the time required to make a pot of pho, I highly recommend making a double batch, either to freeze some broth for a rainy day when you know only a bowl of noodle soup will do, or to invite your friends over for a fabulous pho feast. Trust me – your friends will love you for it.

But perhaps the only barrier to making a double batch (or even one batch, for some people) is finding a stockpot large enough to hold everything comfortably. While the recipe below requires about 6 litres of water, you will need a stockpot with a larger capacity as the beef and bones will need some room. I bought a massive 16 quart (15 litre) stockpot when we lived in Chicago, specifically for making pho and for when we might be entertaining a large crowd, and this turned out to be a great investment.

Making your own pho at home might sound complicated, especially if you have a cheap and cheerful Vietnamese joint in your neighbourhood. But this is the sort of dish to make on a rainy day when you can potter about in the kitchen, resulting in a nourishing and rather healthy meal which you can enjoy over several days. While it might be a breakfast dish in Vietnam, or a winter dish in some countries, I love it at any time of the day, and any time of the year.

Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup 
Recipe adapted from The Food of Vietnam by Luke Nguyen

Recipe makes enough broth for 6 to 8 generous servings

pho-recipe-1

Place the oxtail in a large bowl or saucepan and cover it with cold water. Add 3 tablespoons of the sea salt, and leave the oxtail in the salty brine for about 1 hour. Drain the oxtail and rinse lightly under cold water.

Meanwhile, dry roast the cloves, star anise, cinnamon and black peppercorns separately in an oil-less frying pan over medium heat until they are fragrant. You will need to dry roast the spices separately because they will roast at different rates. However, it should only take a few minutes per spice.

{I found this spice mesh ball in a little kitchenware shop in Austria. It looks like a large tea strainer and is a handy alternative to muslin or cheesecloth strainers.}

{I found this spice mesh ball in a little kitchenware shop in Austria. It looks like a large tea strainer and is a handy alternative to muslin or cheesecloth bags.}

Wrap the dry-roasted spices in some muslin or cheesecloth to create a spice pouch. Alternatively, place the spices into a large spice mesh ball or strainer (see photo, right).

Heat a cast-iron grill over medium-high heat and chargrill the onions and ginger until they are lightly scorched on all sides. This will take about 10-15 minutes. You can also char the onions and ginger over an open flame if you have a gas stove.

Place the oxtail and brisket into a large stockpot and cover with 6 litres (24 cups) of cold water. Bring the pot to the boil and let it simmer rapidly for about 10-15 minutes, before turning down the heat to a gentle simmer. Constantly skim any impurities from the surface of the broth.

Add the spice pouch, chargrilled onions and ginger, fish sauce, sugar and remaining 1 tablespoon of sea salt.

Simmer the broth over low-medium heat for about 3 hours. During this time, keep skimming the surface of the broth to remove any impurities to ensure a clean and clear broth, otherwise the broth will turn cloudy.

Remove the oxtail and brisket to a large bowl. Allow the brisket to cool a little before slicing it thickly.

Remove the spice pouch and discard.

{A soup skimmer should have a very fine mesh to allow you to quickly and easily remove impurities from the surface of your broth or soups.}

{A soup skimmer should have a very fine mesh to allow you to quickly and easily remove impurities from the surface of your broth or soups.}

Strain the broth through a fine sieve or a muslin cloth. Pour the strained broth into a clean stockpot and return to the stove over medium heat. Taste for seasoning – you might want to add some more water if the broth is too concentrated, or perhaps some salt or fish sauce if the flavour needs adjusting. The broth should then be ready to serve.

Cook the rice noodles according to the packet instructions. If you are using dried rice noodles, this usually requires soaking in boiling water until they have softened. If you are using fresh rice noodles, you should blanch them in some boiling water for just a few seconds. A Chinese noodle strainer is helpful for this task (see photo, below). For both types of noodles, keep in mind that they will continue to soften when you add hot broth to them.

Place the softened noodles into large bowls and top with some slices of brisket. I also like to add a few pieces of oxtail to each bowl. Ladle hot broth into each bowl.

Depending on how steaming hot you like your bowl of noodles to be, you can repeat this step by using a large slotted spoon to hold back the contents of the bowl, and return the broth to the stockpot. Wait for the broth to come back to the boil and pour some hot broth back into each bowl.

Garnish with coriander (cilantro) and spring onions (scallions). Allow each person to season their bowl to taste with some Thai basil, red chillies and a squeeze of lime. For a dipping sauce for the meat, the Vietnamese typically mix together Hoisin sauce and Sriracha hot sauce into a little sauce bowl.

{This Chinese noodle strainer is a handy tool for blanching portions of noodles, but it also works well for blanching vegetables.}

{This Chinese noodle strainer is a handy tool for blanching portions of noodles, but it also works well for blanching vegetables.}

Cook’s Notes

One major difference from how my mother makes pho to Luke Nguyen’s recipe above is with the initial treatment of the oxtail. My mother’s method, which is common in many Vietnamese households, is to cook the oxtail in a large pot of cold water, bring it to the boil and let it bubble away for a few minutes. Remove the oxtail to a large colander, discard the water and rinse the oxtail. Return the oxtail to a clean stockpot, cover with cold water and proceed with the recipe. This method is a way to remove the the impurities in the oxtail and contributes to a cleaner and clearer broth.

How much or how little to serve is up to you. What’s important is that you have a bowl which is large enough so that you can mix everything together and rummage around in your bowl without having it splash everywhere. For a generous serving, I like to give each person approximately 600 ml (about 2½ cups or 3 large ladles) of broth. This should give the cook an idea of how many noodles per serving, keeping in mind that the noodles will absorb some of the broth once added, and you want enough broth in the bowl for some slurping action.

How much meat you add is also a personal choice. I often find that the oxtail and beef brisket used to create the broth is more than we would eat over 6 to 8 servings. In fact, a lot of recipes for pho often don’t tell you what to do with the oxtail; it is a lovely and flavourful piece of meat which should be enjoyed after you have tended to it for so many hours. For this reason, I generally don’t serve my pho with thinly sliced raw beef (as you would for Pho Tai). However, if you wish to go this route, simply buy some fresh beef sirloin or entrecôte (about 400 g or 14 oz for 6 to 8 servings), slice it thinly and place 4-5 slices in each bowl before ladling hot soup over it to cook it. The slices of beef should continue to cook in the hot broth in the bowl.

The broth keeps well in the fridge for several days and will turn jelly-like once cold. All of the components of this dish should be kept separately in the fridge.

pho beef noodle soup ingredients 2

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Sha Therin 27 February 2014 at 2:44 pm

I wanted to say thank you to you even before I finish reading your very informative post on the much loved Pho! It was one of my close friend from Vietnam, Huong (herself also married to an Aussie and currently living in Borneo) who first introduced to me a real, home-made Pho… And also how to correctly pronouce her name and the dish. We all just loved the simplicity of this one-bowl meal, and how it was so delicious, healthy and filling. In her version of the Pho, she had used this incredibly fragrant spice which she called black cardamom but it was much bigger than the cardamoms I’ve been used to. Another friend of mine who visited India was lovely enough to bring me back some from there. I now live in Lille, France and I’m not sure if I can buy it here…:(. Anyway! I’m just so happy that you took time to blog about the Pho and am now excited to finish up reading it :).

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eat, little bird 27 February 2014 at 4:13 pm

You’re very welcome! I hope you will enjoy this post and be able to take something from it. I’ve included a video of Luke Nguyen making a version of Pho in Hanoi, and there he uses black cardamom in the spice pouch. I also can’t find it where I live in Zurich so I sometimes use the more commonly available green cardamom which, in itself, is also quite fragrant.

I’m not sure how readily available Asian food products are in Lille, but I hope you will get a chance to make this at home. For me, it normally requires a trip to 2 different supermarkets and 2 different Asian grocers. Even then, sometimes what I’m after is sold out so I have to make another trip a day or two later!

In Zurich, instead of using beef brisket, I often use the cut of beef sold for pot-au-feu (Bouilli Maigre). I think it’s from the same part of the animal but just cut differently.

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Jo Blogs 27 February 2014 at 2:58 pm

Beautiful Thanh. A labour of love! I love the new style of recipe photo you did – shot from the side instead of above. The bowl is beautiful too which you serve the soup in, but I am a freak for a beautiful bowl ;)

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eat, little bird 27 February 2014 at 4:15 pm

Thanks, Jo! I knew this post would be quite long so I decided not to do any step-by-step photos for this recipe. I also love these soup bowls – they’re so pretty to look at while you are eating :-)

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Donna 27 February 2014 at 3:56 pm

What a lovely presentation! I really enjoy Pho and now I have the perfect recipe with which to try it here at home. Thank you for the inspiration.

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eat, little bird 27 February 2014 at 4:15 pm

You’re welcome, Donna! I hope you will get a chance to try this recipe at home. I promise you that it will be worth it!

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Caroline @ The Patterned Plate 27 February 2014 at 6:21 pm

Oh, if there can only be one thing I could thank you for, it’s for introducing me to Luke Nguyen and Pho! I tried this version recently and instantly fell in love with the beautiful, complex, layered flavours. And it’s SO comforting in the eating. I love eating this alone. One, you don’t have to worry about offending anyone with appreciative slurping noises and two, no one can see just how many bowlfuls I eat!

I liked the Pho Tai version in SoS – fine fresh hit of silky, barely cooked meat, against the deeper flavour and texture of the long cooked brisket and the gamey flavour of the oxtail – which all played together nicely with the clean, unfussy broth.

The spices in this version make it a bit more special, more interesting, a little louder. I’d take it any which way it was given! Thanks Thanh. Fabulous post :)

PS: Think I’ll try your mum’s method for the oxtail next time, just to see the difference.

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Eat, Little Bird 28 February 2014 at 5:40 pm

It’s great to know that you’re also a fan of pho :-) Whenever we travel and I see a Vietnamese restaurant, I always order pho because it is something I only get to eat once in a while. But either I am getting too used to my own cooking or I am starting to find that there is something special about a homemade version. I like to make a big batch of pho because I love looking forward to a bowl in the coming days. If my freezer was bigger, I would make so much more!

And as I know you’re also a fan of Luke Nguyen, I have a few more of his recipes lined up to publish soon :-)

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Paula 28 February 2014 at 10:11 am

Well, I’ve already said this before, but this is no he kind of dishes that I include in my favorite foods. Anyway, I love the mix of ingredients and flavours, and the photos, as usual, are beautiful!!

I don’t know, I’m more used to eat noodles without broth, and soup whit short pasta, not noodles. Habits, I think…

Mom has a spice ball like that, never use it, I’m going to tell her what she can do with it!!! Or keep the secret and take it home with me :P

This summer we return to Schweitz!!! I’m looking forward to go to one of these pastries you give envy with on Facebook :P We’ll be there during 7-10 days, we’ve to decide.

I have to go over allll the post you have make about special places!!! :P

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Eat, Little Bird 28 February 2014 at 5:43 pm

Asian food culture is a lot about big bowls of noodle soups, so I totally understand if this is very foreign to you :-) I love noodles of all kind – in soups, in stir-fries, pasta, etc. In fact, I didn’t like rice as a child so my mother had to cook noodles most of the time for me.

That’s so exciting that you will be visiting Switzerland again soon! I’ll send you an email with some tips on where to go ;-)

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Paula 2 March 2014 at 9:52 am

I have to introduce a little more on Asian food. Beyond fried rice and Pekin duck :P Cos the truth is that I like the mix of flavors they use, but the format is new for me :P

I wouldn’t dare to ask you for help (well, perhaps I was going to abuse a little and ask for some little information that you don’t find in guides or web), but if I receive that mail, you don’t know how much I’d appreciate it!! But I know you’ll be busy too, so no problem if you don’t find an opening ;)

We’re really happy with this travel, we have the flight, so from now till july we only will think on vacations, jajaja Every year happens the same. We’ll fly to Zurich and come back from Geneve, so we can give a good trip, I think. We were going to use our car, but it was a little exhausting, even if you can put all the things you want in the boot :P

Call me silly, but I’ve a terrible desire to ‘step on’ Gruyères!! And fondue, and raclette!! :P

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Rushi 28 February 2014 at 5:43 pm

I learnt so much from your post. I’m a novice when it comes to Pho, I’ve only read about it and seen pictures of the beautiful steaming dish. I loved this post, it’s felt like a big hug on a warm rainy day. I think I had a similar soup in Thailand but that was ages ago and can’t seem to remember much of it. Thanks for introducing me t yet another awe inspiring dish from Vietnam :D
xxx

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Eat, Little Bird 28 February 2014 at 5:47 pm

Thanks, Rushi :-)

Next time you are in Paris, you should head to the 13th arrondissement for a bowl of pho! It’s always hard to imagine or recreate a dish which you have never tried before, but pho is a defining dish of Vietnamese cuisine. It’s warm and comforting, fragrant and heady, much like a lot of Vietnamese food. Hope you are doing well :-)

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Carole 2 March 2014 at 5:47 pm

This looks spectacular and your pictures are fabulous! Pho is one of my favorite dishes ever and in Saigon, we had a big bowl of the best pho ever every morning to start the day properly..my favorite breakfast ever! Perfect comfort food for me- and I am not even Asian :)
We also try to visit Vietnamese restaurants whenever we travel somewhere and did find some good pho soups in Paris. Here in Zürich, we often visit Asiaway (I believe we talked about this place long ago) but I always order their bun bo hue which I crave all the time. The bun bo hues I tried in Vietnam need some getting used to (lots of types of meats I was not familiar with) but the one at Asiaway packs lots of bold flavors and has lean tender meat. Hm just thinking about it makes me hungry!
I heard about a new Vietnamese restaurant in Zürich called Hoi An..have you tried it? We always mean to go but haven’t found the right time until now.
Anyway I am the biggest fan of Luke Nguyen too and really need to try this recipe. The problem is indeed that I don’t have a pot that’s big enough but I think it will be my next investment and I am sure it will be worth is since I love making different types of stock. I will try to see what I can find in France one of these days since these types of things are so overpriced here in Switzerland.
Thanks for this great post!

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Eat, Little Bird 2 March 2014 at 8:53 pm

Hi Carole! Lovely to hear from you :-)

I remember us discussing some of Luke Nguyen’s cookbooks a while back. I hope your trip to Vietnam has inspired you to make a few Vietnamese dishes at home. I find the Asian grocers in Zürich to be better stocked these days compared to, say, 5 years ago, but sometimes it is hit and miss as to whether they will have what I need. Quite often, I have to trek to at least two Asian grocers before I have everything on my shopping list.

I haven’t heard of Hoi An … I will have to look it up. I saw a Vietnamese-Thai takeaway shop open recently in Wollishofen, so I suppose Vietnamese restaurants are slowly taking off around here.

I’m also a big fan of Bun Bo Hue :-) Actually, if I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, I am perhaps more likely to order this dish than Pho; I make Pho quite frequently at home, whereas I am still yet to find “the” Bun Bo Hue recipe. So that’s great to know that Asiaway makes good Bun Bo Hue! We might go there this week to check it out :-)

As for the stockpot, I didn’t bother looking for one in Zürich as I knew it would cost a fortune. But then, you can sometimes find good bargains at Manor or Co-op. The one I ended up buying in the US cost only about CHF 50, although it seems to be of good quality with a good, heavy base.

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Samantha 30 March 2014 at 8:12 am

We are cooking this tomorrow for our Charity dinner. Never made or even had pho before so I can’t wait to see how this goes!

I’ll make sure I share your recipe on my page :)

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