The traffic noise gets louder by the minute as motorists and cyclists pour into Hang Giay Street. But the people sitting next to me at this low table are oblivious to all the commotion. Instead, they’re anxiously wiping their chopsticks, fiddling with their little dishes of lime and chopped chilies. It’s early morning, and morning means pho, pronounced “fuh,” the country’s beloved rice noodle soup with beef.
I had come to taste my favorite food in Hanoi, the city that created it. And this particular bowl of pho was as soothing and delicious as I had imagined it would be. The rice noodles here are almost sheer, and the broth is clear, like spring water, yet intensely aromatic. As I slurp my steaming soup, I can’t help but flash back to Saigon in the sixties. Whenever my parents could afford it, which was about once a month, they would take my siblings and me to Pho 79. It was small and run-down, with wobbly tables and squeaky stools. Yet no one ever judged it by its looks. Every time we arrived, the place was packed. When our soup would arrive, we would bend down and inhale the aroma, as it to verify its authenticity. Invariably, the broth smelled utterly beefy, laced with just-roasted spices. The rice noodles looked velvety and fresh, the edges of the rare beef curled up expectantly in the hot broth. All was well.
Pho originated in northern Vietnam, here in Hanoi, following the French occupation in the latter part of the 1800s. The Vietnamese, who valued cows and buffaloes as indispensable beasts of burden, didn’t eat red meat, preferring instead pork, chicken, and seafood. When the French arrived, however, many Vietnamese—especially those belonging to the upper classes—began to share the French affection for beef.
How this actually led to the creation of pho remains a debate. Some scholars believe the dish parallels the history of Vietnam, harboring both a Chinese and a French connection. It was the French, they theorize, who introduced the idea of using bones and lesser cuts of beef to make the broth. (After all, in a society that wasted nothing, what was one to do with all the bones carved with biftecks?) They believe the precursor to pho was created when Vietnamese cooks learned to make pot-au-feu for their French masters. The name pho might even have come from the French word feu, for fire. Others argued that while the French popularized beef, it was actually the Chinese who created pho, as evidenced by its use of noodles and ginger.
Regardless of its origin, pho remained a mainstay in northern Vietnam. The infectious enthusiasm for the simple beef and noodle soup spread in 1954, when the country was partitioned in two. The north fell under Communist control and almost a million northerners fled to the south, taking with them a dream of a new life and a love of pho, which took the south by storm. When pho migrated, however, it was embellished. Southerners demanded richer and livelier flavors and discernible textures. Pho was served with more meat, more noodles, more broth, reflecting the abundance of its new surrounding. Southerners started adding bean sprouts and herbs. Garnishes such as lime wedges, fresh chilies, chili sauce and tuong, or bean sauce, giving the dish a new character, the one it retains now.
When my family and I first arrived in the United States following the fall of Saigon, one of the foods we missed most desperately was pho. To us, a steaming bowl of pho was a taste of home. Over the years, immigrant families have readjusted and rebuilt our lives. Somehow, in the midst of all this transformation, the soup followed us through tumultuous times and journeys and has become a big part of our everyday life. Authentic recipes have been dusted off, preserved and cooked with great fervor. And so, as I’m slurping my bowl of pho in Hanoi, it’s comforting to know that wherever I happen to be, whether it’s in Vietnam or California, pho will always lurk in the background, ready to nourish and sustain me.
This beloved noodle soup is a complete meal in itself and is best served for breakfast or lunch on a weekend. Because the simmering takes at least two hours, I like to prepare the broth a day ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator, where it will last for three days. Many cookbooks call for it to be made with oxtail bones, but I prefer a combination of marrow bones and beef chuck, which is what pho cooks in Vietnam use. A good pho broth needs to be clear, not muddy and dark, and certainly fragrant of beef, anise and ginger.–Mai Pham
LC Pho 101 Note
Author Mai Pham anticipated you needing a cheat sheet to pho—a sorta list of tricks to successfully and properly slurping pho. Lucky you, here it is:
You can serve this soup with several toppings, whether rare to well-done beef, briskets and meatballs, even tripe, tendon, and so on. The easiest ones to prepare at home are cooked and raw beef, as in the accompanying recipe.
To use broth that has been made in advance, bring it to a boil, then add ginger to refresh it. Come serving time, get friends or family to help cook the noodles and assemble the bowls. Make sure that the broth is boiling hot and the bowls preheated. Allow about 1 part noodles to 3 part broth for each bowl.
Eat pho while it’s piping hot. If you wait for it to cool down, the noodles will expand and become soggy, and the dish will taste bland. (Some connoisseurs don’t even talk while they eat their pho, preferring to save serious chatting for later.)
Begin by adding bean sprouts, fresh chiles, and a little squeeze of lime. Using your fingers, pluck the Asian basil leaves from their sprigs and, if saw-leaf is available, shred the leaves and add them to the soup. Add the herbs little by little, eating as you go. (If you put them in all at once, the broth will cool too fast and the herbs will overcook and lose their bright flavors.) Chili sauce and hoisin sauce are traditional condiments, but I avoid them because, to my taste, they mask the flavor of pho.
Push the garnishes in the hot broth with your chopsticks and gently turn the noodles.
With spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other, pull the noodles out of the broth and eat, slurping the broth. It’s perfectly acceptable to be seen with clumps of noodles dangling from your mouth, eyes squinting from the steam.
The broth is served in large amounts to keep the noodles warm and to help season the dish. It’s not meant to be consumed in its entirety. But if you’re in the mood, it’s not considered rude to tip the bowl and slurp down every last drop.
Vietnamese Rice Noodle Soup with Beef Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 1 H
- 3 H, 10 M
- 6 main-dish servings
- For the broth
- 5 pounds beef marrow or knuckle bones
- 2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 2 pieces
- 2 3-inch pieces ginger root, halved lengthwise, lightly bruised with the flat side of a knife, and charred (see Note below)
- 2 yellow onions, peeled and charred (see Note below)
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 ounces rock sugar (see LC Note) or 3 tablespoons sugar
- 10 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan
- 6 whole cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan
- 1 tablespoon sea salt, or to taste
- To assemble and serve
- 1 pound dried 1/16- inch wide rice noodles (banh pho), soaked, cooked, and drained
- 1/3 pound beef sirloin, slightly frozen, then sliced paper-thin across the grain
- 1/2 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin
- 3 scallions, cut into thin rings
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 1 pound bean sprouts
- 10 sprigs Asian basil (may substitute regular basil or mint)
- 1 dozen saw-leaf herb leaves (optional)
- 6 Thai bird chiles or 1 serrano chile, cut into thin rings
- 1 lime, cut into 6 thin wedges
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Make the broth
- 1. In a large stockpot, bring 6 quarts (24 cups) water to a boil. In a smaller pot, bring the beef bones, beef chuck, and enough water to cover to a boil. Let boil vigorously for 5 minutes. Using tongs, carefully transfer the bones and beef to the large pot of boiling water. Discard the water in which the meat cooked. (This reduces the impurities that can cloud the broth.)
- 2. When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Skim any foam from the surface of the broth. Add the charred ginger and onions, fish sauce, and sugar. Gently simmer, skimming any foam, until the beef chuck is tender, about 40 minutes. Only gentle bubbles should rise to the surface of the broth. Do not allow the broth to return to a full boil. (This also reduces the chance of a cloudy broth.)
- 3. Remove one piece of chuck, leaving the other piece in the gently simmering broth. Submerge the chuck in a bowl of cool water for 10 minutes to prevent the meat from drying out. Drain the chuck, then thinly slice and refrigerate it.
- 4. After the broth has simmered for 50 more minutes (1 1/2 hours total), wrap the star anise and cloves in a spice bag or piece of cheesecloth and add to the broth. Let infuse until the broth is fragrant, about 30 minutes more (2 hours total). Remove and discard both the spice bag and onions. Add the salt and leave the remaining chuck and bones to simmer, skimming as necessary, until you’re ready to assemble the pho. (The broth may taste slightly salty but will be balanced once the noodles and accompaniments are added.)
- Assemble and serve
- 5. Place the cooked noodles in preheated bowls. (If the noodles are no longer hot, dip them briefly in boiling water to prevent them from cooling down the soup.) Place a few slices of the reserved thinly sliced beef chuck and the raw sirloin on the noodles. Bring the broth to a rolling boil and ladle about 2 to 3 cups into each bowl. The broth will cook the raw beef instantly. Garnish with yellow onions, scallions, and cilantro. Serve immediately, inviting guests to garnish the bowls with bean sprouts, herbs, chiles, lime juice, and black pepper.
How To Char Onion And Ginger Note
- To char ginger and onions, hold the ingredient with the tongs directly over an open flame or place it directly on a medium-hot electric burner. While turning, char until the edges are slightly blackened and the ginger or onion is fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Peel and discard the blackened skins of the ginger and onions, then rinse the remaining ingredient and add to the broth.
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Vietnamese Rice Noodle Soup with Beef Recipe © 2001 Mai Pham. Photo © 2005 Un rosarino en Vietnam. All rights reserved.