I remember about 10 years ago, I took my co-workers to a Vietnamese restaurant and introduced them to pho. They were cautious but brave enough to try it. They never went back with me again. Back then, if you were not Asian (mostly Vietnamese), you would not know what a bowl of pho is. Noodles, broth, rare beef, and a bed of veggies? Uh, no thanks, but that’s weird. Don’t even get me started on all the “pho” jokes.
Present day, pho is trendy. What used to be a mom & pop establishment are now popping up everywhere and with catchy names like What the Pho, Pho King way, and Good Pho You. What the Pho?!?! Mike & Molly even had an episode about this!
Trendy or traditional, we can all agree…. it’s pho-licious!
And if you live under a rock and don’t know what pho is, I am here to enlighten you!
What is Pho?
Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup typically made from beef stock and Asian spices. It’s eaten with flat rice noodles, thinly sliced beef, and fresh herbs.
This dish is pronounced “fuh?”. That’s right. Pronounce it in question form… Fuh-uh? (Go ahead, I’ll give you a minute to laugh and create your own fuh jokes).
Pho is the staple cuisine of Vietnamese cooking. It’s like pasta to Italians and hamburgers to… Americans! In Vietnam, people start their day off with a bowl of pho and café sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with condense milk). I remember when I was 15, I worked at a pho establishment. On weekends, my shift started at 7:30 am. When the restaurant opened at 8:00 am, families would flock in for breakfast like we were IHOP. It was crazy!
Whenever I make a pot of pho, I would often have it for breakfast the next day. My husband thinks it’s weird. He would have his bacon and eggs while I’m slurping down my noodles. I call it, my Vietnamese cereal.
Parts of Pho
Pho is a complex yet deliciously satisfying dish. In one bowl of pho, you will experience tastes of savory, sweet, spicy, fresh, and crunchy.
Pho actually refers to the noodles and not the soup. But all pho lovers judge the dish by its broth. It’s made by using an assortment of spices and beef bones. There are pre-made seasonings of pho broth where the instructions are to simply, “add water”, but I personally believe there are no substitute for the labor-intensive bowl of homemade pho.
To make the broth, you will need a combination of spices and other flavorings. The spices includes: cloves, coriander pods, star anise, cardamom, fennel, and cinnamon bark (or cinnamon sticks). All of these spices may be purchased separately, but I find that pre-measured pho seasonings are more convenient and it costs under $2.00/packet. For the other flavorings,you will need: yellow onion, fresh ginger, rock sugar, fish sauce, and beef bones.
The best broth is made with beef bones and meat. The bones are a mixture of knuckle bones and leg bones. That’s right, the part that has the big ball of knuckle! The knuckle bones are full of gelatin and the leg bones are full or marrow. The fat from the marrow gives it’s rich taste and the meat lends sweetness to the broth. If you are unable to get your hands on these bones, oxtails or any beef bones + a pound of beef (steak, chuck, brisket, ground, …) will do.
Pho noodles are usually rice noodles. Fresh is best but it’s not always available. If you have to use dried, make sure the noodles are thick and flat.
The most known in pho is bo tai, which are rare slices of eye round sirloin. Other types of beef used in pho are sliced well-done steak (bo chin), flank (nam), fatty brisket (gau), tendon (gan), tripe (sach), and meatballs (bo vien).
There is also pho ga (chicken pho), which is made the same way as the “normal” pho except for the use of a whole chicken.
You will ALWAYS find a plate of garnishes that accompanies a hot bowl of pho. Traditionally, the garnishes consist of bean sprouts = fresh and crunchy, culantro (ngo gai) = strong and sharp, sliced jalapenos = spicy and crunchy, cilantro = fresh and earthy, thai basil = sweet and earthy.and a wedge of lime = fresh and sour.
If pho broth is made right, you won’t need any condiments. However, we all have different taste buds.
Hoisin Sauce – thick and dark sauce that is sweet and salty. Sriracha – (aka rooster sauce) type of chilli sauce that’s sweet, spicy, and tangy. Fish Sauce – pungent and salty
There is an art to eating pho. It’s not your typical bowl of noodle soup where you can just dip your spoon in and devour it. Before eating your bowl of pho, you have to follow these steps:
First, sip the broth and savor it. Like fine wine.
Pho broth takes hours to make. You would want to taste all the complexity and aroma in the broth before anything is added into the bowl and change the flavor.
Now it’s time for the garnishes.
Place a handful of bean sprouts and some peppers or jalapeno slices into the bowl. Then rip up the basil and cilantro. Scatter them into the broth. If you don’t like any of the garnishes, that’s ok too.
Lastly, the condiments.
Squirt the desired amount of hoisin sauce, sriracha, and/or fish sauce into the bowl. Squeeze the lime juice and then toss everything. Toss the noodles over the garnishes until it’s nice and submerged. The heat from the broth will cook the meat and the garnishes.
Now we eat!
Pho is best eaten with chopsticks and a soup spoon. Not the dinky kind of spoon. You need a hearty spoon that is big enough to house all the contents of pho. (There’s actually a specific spoon used for this dish) Slightly hover your head over the bowl and let the steam and aroma tickle your nose. While working the noodles, protein, and garnishes with your chopsticks in one hand, you sip the broth in the other. You can also twirl some noodles and soup into the spoon and slurp it all at once.
Don’t worry about the slurping. It’s actually pho etiquette and customary to do so.
Once the noodles are gone, pick up the heavy bowl with both hands, bring it to your lips, and finish it off. Lay the bowl down. With a big smile and a full belly, wipe the broth drippings off your chin.
There! You are now free to go out into the world and enjoy a bowl of pho with confidence!
Before we start making pho, I want to introduce you to this special lady I call mom. She taught me everything I needed to know about Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine. The pho recipe I’m about to share with you is mom’s recipe. After I got married, mom gave me her beloved pho pot and recipe. We spent an entire weekend in her little kitchen cooking and talking about her childhood and her experiences when she fled Vietnam. As I am writing this blog, I am reminded again of the sacrifices my parents went through in order for me to have this life and freedom. I am forever grateful.
Many people love eating pho but are afraid to make it themselves. Well, I am here to help. Pho is quite easy and inexpensive to make. If you have the time, then you can make it. Like momma’s chicken noodle soup, pho can be made in a million ways. Regardless of the recipe, all pho variations has it’s distinct flavor and are good for the soul.
The secret of cooking pho is not in it’s spices or beef bones. The secret is in the length of time you cook it….. a simmering minimum of 3-4 hours, which allows all the spices to marry and all the meaty marrow goodness to extract. Mom said, a good stock will take 10 hours. Ummm, nope. My stamina maxes at 6 hours.
This recipe makes A LOT of pho broth. Enough to feed a family of 10. Or lots of friends. Or you can eat pho 3 times/day for a week. But if you’re like me, you can portion the broth into containers and freeze them.
To make pho, you will need the following:
- 10-12 quart stock pot
- 4-5 lbs of beef bones
- 2 tbs salt
- 1 large yellow onion, cut in half
- 2-4 thick slices of fresh ginger
- 1 pkg of pre-measured pho spices or
- 4 star anise
- 1-2 cardamom pods
- 3 cinnamon barks or 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp whole peppercorns
- 10 whole cloves
- 1 small/med size rock sugar, about 1 0z – can be substituted with sugar in the raw
- 2 Tbs of Fish sauce – can be substituted with salt or use both
- at least 3-4 hours. 6 – 10 hours is best.
- 2 C bean sprouts
- 1 bunch thai basil
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- hoisin sauce
- fish sauce
- fresh peppers or jalapenos
- 1 – 2 lbs pho noodles
- 1 lb rare slices of eye of round sirloin or a combination of any of the proteins
- ½ yellow onion – sliced paper thin
- 3 scallions – sliced
- cilantro – coarsely chopped
Making the pho broth
Place the beef bones in a large bowl with salt and cold water. Soak the bones for 5 min. Strain the bones and rinse it with cold water.
Place the beef bones in the stock pot. Fill the pot with cold water till it reaches just above the bones. Place the pot on the stove and let it boil vigorously for 10-15 minutes.
While you’re waiting for the water to boil, turn on the grill or the broiler. Grill or broil the onion and ginger until it’s charred. About 15 min.
When the water starts to boil, a thick frothy layer of scum will float to the top of the water. Using the soup ladle, skim off the layer of scum and discard.
Then pour the water out, rinse the beef bones and stock pot. Return the bones back into the pot. Fill the pot with cold water until it reaches about 2″ from the top. The first boil is to remove the impurities of the bones and prevent a cloudy broth.
– If you’re going to cook with oxtail, tendon, brisket, and flank, add it at this time.
Place the spices in a dry skillet and toast to release their aroma. The spices are done when the colors turns a shade darker.
Place all the spices into a sachet or cheese cloth and tie the ends tightly with twine. Place the spice bag into the stock pot. Then, add the charred onion, ginger and rock sugar to the pot. Cook uncovered on high heat.
– I do not add fish sauce or salt till the end and prefer to add the rock sugar at the beginning. Doing so will allow the sugar to slowly release it’s sweetness and permeate the broth.
Once the broth reaches a boil, reduce the heat to low, uncovered, and let it simmer for 1 ½ hrs.
NOTE: The key to a clear broth is to maintain the stock at just the barest of simmers. Anything above a simmer will result a cloudy broth.
Occasionally, check on the broth and skim off any scum and fat at the top. Cover the pot and let it simmer for another 1 ½ hrs.
This is a crucial step. After 3 hours, it is time to taste the broth and season it to your taste. If the spices is to your liking, then remove the spice bag. If you like a stronger spice taste, leave the bag in. Season with fish sauce or salt and add more rock sugar to your liking. Repeat the process after 30 min until the broth tastes perfect. Don’t forget to skim off the scum and fat at the top.
– If cooking oxtail, tendon, brisket, and flank – check for doneness and remove if it’s tender. Set aside.
After 6 hours, do a final taste and season the broth to your liking. Place a strainer over a large bowl. Remove all the bones, spice bag, onion pieces, and ginger. Strain the broth. Return the strained broth back into the pot. And that’s it!
Preparing the pho
Round eye steak is best for beef pho. This is the only meat that will be served rare. Most Asian markets will have bo tai – pre sliced and packaged. If not, place the steak in the freezer for 15 min and let it harden a bit. Doing so will make it a lot easier to slice. Take the meat out and slice it across the grain as thinly as possible.
Flank and brisket – cut thick slices across the grain.
Oxtail – roughly shred with a fork
Tendon – cut into 1 – 2 inch chunks
Beef tripe – slice into strips. Right before serving, add to the broth for a minute to heat them through
Beef Balls – slice in half or quarters. Right before serving, add to the broth for a minute to heat them through
Cover and refrigerate the sliced meats until time to serve.
Gather all the herbs. Place all the herbs and wedges of lemon on a serving plate.
Place the slices of onions, scallions, and chopped cilantro in a bowl and set it aside for assembly.
Preparing the noodles
Always cook the noodles in a separate pot of water. Follow the instructions on the noodle package.
Dried pho noodles – There are different sizes, widths, and thickness of pho noodles, so it’s very important that you follow the package directions.
Fresh noodles – blanch the noodles in boiling water until al dente. Usually 3-5 minutes.
Place the cooked noodles into the bowl.
Bring the broth back up to a simmer.
Arrange thin slices of raw eye of round sirloin on top of the noodles and any other meats you prefer. Add thin slices of onions and scallions on top of the meat.
Ladle the hot broth all over the contents in the bowl. Keep ladling the hot liquid until all the contents are submerged and the onions, scallions, and cilantro are floating to the top.
Serve the pho with the herb plate and condiments on the side.
Voila! Enjoy and have fun slurping!
Go ahead, try it! Pho sho you will be addicted!
How do you like your pho?