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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.