Vietnamese noodle soup is popular in northern Vietnam. Consisting of rice noodles on the bottom of the bowl, meat (incl. raw beef, tripe, beef brisket, tendon, etc.), with *extremely* hot broth is poured over the top.

The meat is actually cooked by the broth. So use the chopsticks and spoon to move the noodles from the bottom of the bowl to the top to cover the meat. This allows for the meat be cooked properly.

Be careful of the spicy, red sauce called Uc. Very spicy!!!

The correct* spelling of "pho" requires the use of Vietnamese diacritical marks. If you have a Unicode-compliant application and want to impress your friends, you can spell "pho" correctly by using U+1EDF ("Latin small letter o with horn and hook above") for the last letter. If your browser fully supports the Unicode provisions of HTML 4.0 or newer and has the requisite fonts, this example (using the character reference "ở") will demonstrate the correct spelling: phở.

*Disclaimer: I do not know Vietnamese. The character I describe matches the one I have seen used most often in spelling "pho." Please feel free to /msg me with corrections.

Reference:
Unicode, Inc. "Latin Extended Additional." The Unicode Standard, Version 3.0. 2000. http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U1E00.pdf (11 Mar. 2001).


Update (15 Mar 2001): I've noticed a fair number of Vietnamese restaurants spelling "pho" using an O that looks like the character I describe above, except the hook is pushed over to the right of the horn instead of being above the O. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find a single Unicode character that represents that, nor any combination of two characters (although the combination of U+01A1 followed by U+02C0 seems to come close).

This Vietnamese dish of soft rice noodles, bathed with a beguiling, spice laden broth has to be one of the most classic soups in international cuisine. Along with the Malay laksa, it has travelled far and wide.

I will never forget my first taste of pho soup. The flavours were so mysterious and distinct, yet somehow in complete balance and harmony. This is the key to the wondrous nature of the soup. Heady, full flavoured spices such as cinnamon and star anise are slowly infused into the broth to create a complex flavour that really has no comparison.

To understand this soup properly (yes, I mean that without a drop of irony) it will help a little to consider how the Vietnamese themselves enjoy it. A big bowl of steaming broth with noodles and meat in the west would be considered a meal unto itself, but in Vietnam pho is simply a snack. Not a snack the way we know it, a packet of crisps or whatever, but a wholesome meal that can be found anywhere and at anytime, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. The idea here is to treat the soup for what it really is, a quick meal, but one of the most impressive in the world.

There are countless variations of pho, of which there are two main varieties. Pho bo and pho ga. Bo is Vietnamese for beef and ga is chicken. The sub varieties come from the different parts of the beast used in the soup. A plain pho bo will include the brisket originally used for the base stock, plus some finely sliced prime cut cooked only at the last second by the hot broth. This prime cut will normally be a small amount of fillet, rump or striploin. When you get into the esoteric varieties of pho you will encounter all manner of offal, including tripe, tendon and lights (lung). What all pho variants have in common is the generous plate of garnishes that you can add to your discretion. These include Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, bean sprouts and chillies, as well as a whole host of sauces.

Pho is one of the few dishes where it really pays to eat out. Vietnamese noodle restaurants churn out hundreds of portions a day for an embarrassingly low price per bowl. However, I still feel that a recipe is still in order because the flavours and spicing are so unique. This soup truly provides you with an authentic feel for the region and its cuisine. Most of the hard work for this recipe lies with making the broth itself, but don't fret because this can easily be made in advance, say a day or two beforehand. When it comes time to assembling the soup it is only a matter of minutes, leaving you time to chat to your guests before you blow them away with your pho. After a few good years eating this soup in special restaurants such as Pasteur, I have learned that pho is pronounced in English somewhere between "far" and "fur".

Pho Bo

Ingredients

Method

Place the brisket in a large stock pot and cover with the water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Heat the oil to medium/hot in a wok or large frypan and fry half the onions and the ginger until they are deeply golden, but not blackened, otherwise bitterness will invade the soup. Place the spices in a dry wok or frypan and cook over medium heat. Watch carefully so that they don't burn. What you are trying to achieve with these steps is not only increased flavour from the roasting and frying, but the deep colour that they will impart to create an authentic pho. Drain the brisket and discard the water. Cover with fresh water, bring to the boil again, then reduce to a simmer. Skim any foamy scum that rises to the surface, then add the cooked spices, ginger and onion. Simmer for 2 hours and strain, keeping the brisket and discarding the solids. The soup can be made to this stage a day or two in advance. Place the stock in the fridge and let cool.

Once cool, the fat will have solidified on the surface, scoop this off and discard. Mix the remaining sliced onions with the salt and stand for 20 minutes. Rinse the salt off and drain. Reheat the soup. If using dried noodles, soak in hot water for 10 minutes. If you are using fresh noodles, just separate into strands and divide between 4 large bowls. Top with the rinsed onions, then slice the cooked brisket thinly and add to the noodles. Add the fish sauce to the soup and taste, it may need a little more and perhaps a pinch of salt. Pour the hot broth over the noodles. Serve immediately with side plates containing the sprouts, herbs and chillies. Pass around extra fish sauce for your guests to add at their discretion.

BlackPawn has reminded me that Pho is always accompanied by a wedge of lemon or lime to squeeze at will into your soup, or side dishes. This was a big oversight of mine, but make sure you don't forget it!

All pho is not the same.

I grew up in a tiny house in Southern California packed to the brim with my family. In Vietnam my family owned and operated a pho house in Saigon. Every Saturday I saw my mother or grandfather create perfection from broth that had been carefully prepared days ago. The broth permeated my house at the end of the week giving random people passing our house watering mouths.

I consider myself a pho connoisseur. You can be one too. The family secret for the broth goes to my grave.

First is the place you decide to visit. Go deep into your local Chinatown and you might find a little Saigon. Pho joints are everywhere and tend to conglomerate together. A fun little experiment is to go to a different everyday. Try not to base too much on the looks of the place. The dirtier looking ones are still there for a reason. The ones that cater to a more "western" crowd tend to have poorer versions.

First, notice the plate of veggies that they give you. You should notice the sweet Thai basil, bean sprouts, and lime, the triad of basic pho vegetables. Depending on where you are you might see mint, cilantro, chilies and various other greens. At a good pho joint you'll notice that everything on the plate is fresh and recently cut. The sprouts should be crisp and not soggy at all. The basil stems should not be brown.

When the steamy bowls finally get to you first thing you should do is sip the broth. It should be rich, with no one flavor overpowering it. Avoid putting in the usual combination of sauces into it, as the flavor can run the gamut as you go to different joints. Even at restaurants you frequent the broth will change in overall taste to a tongue that is properly trained. The sauces you put in are mostly personal preferences. In general if the broth tastes like it needs some salt, add a bit of fish sauce. Be careful, it's very powerful. Try not to add too much hoisin or Sriracha because you want pho, not hoisin/Sriracha soup. Hoisin is dark brown and has a sweet taste to it. It is useful sometimes as a dipping sauce for meat if you don't want the broth to taste entirely of it. Sriracha is what mdlever called Uc. It has a distinctive, garlicky taste. (Uc actually means any spicy ingredient in Viet) Sometimes there will be some ground up chilies in oil. If you are so inclined be sure to try to get in as little oil in as possible. Now add your basil, lime juice and sprouts. Mix in bowl.

The noodles should never be clumped together. Unskilled cooks will often cook the noodles too long in the soup creating a starchy mess for the broth. On the other hand when eating only the the noodles, they should have the essence of the broth. As you eat at different places you will notice that the noodles have much to do with the overall experience even though they might have the least amount of flavor.

The meat selection, depending on which bowl you have selected, is delicious. Go ahead and try every different cut of beef even if it sounds disgusting. Flank, tripe, brisket, fatty brisket, and meatballs are things you might find on the menu, among others.

Vietnamese coffee is a good compliment to a large bowl of pho, iced or hot. It will help you blend in if you're a neophyte.

I have found that the best way to teach others how to pronounce pho is to say "fuh" like it's a question. "fuuhh?" If you're not Vietnamese, start asking how to order things on the menu. You'll never understand how much servers will smile if you come in speaking English then order everything in Viet. Now go get some!

Faux Pho (aka Pos is tired and hungry and it's cold and she wants tasty soup goodness. NOW.)

I love pho bo. In Vietnam, I ate it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and even on the way home from town. Now that I'm back in New Zealand, if I want the delights of this aromatic, healthy and filling soup, I have to fork out an obnoxious amount of money to get it at a Vietnamese restaurant (ok - to be fair, it's about a normal NZ main price, but since I know what it costs on the ground in Vietnam, it hurts paying that price!), OR I have to sacrifice a lot of time (which, given my job, I do not have).

Desperation for tasty, tasty pho goodness led to experimentation in the kitchen, naturally. This version takes approximately 5-10 minutes from start to end, as long as you have the ingredients handy and have pre-boiled the water in the kettle. This recipe serves one person, but can easily be doubled, tripled, etc. It will never be as amazing as proper pho bo, but it's quite delicious in its own right, cheap, healthy, and fast. It is also useful for me, because I find it very hard to get all the proper pho ingredients at home, so have tried to come up with a soup whose ingredients could be found pretty much anywhere in the world.


You will need:
  • Fresh, high-quality steak (but not much - budget about 2 matchbox size pieces)
  • Water and powdered beef stock OR liquid beef stock (about a cup and a half, but this is flexible depending on how soupy you like it)
  • Flat rice noodles (in the Asian section of your supermarket)
  • Asian Flavouring Options
  • Vegetable-y bits
  • Condimenty things

So how's about gettin' your pho on?

Bring your water+stock or stock to the boil in a pot. (nb: if you back yourself to complete all the other steps of this recipe in under three minutes, add your noodles the moment it hits boiling; otherwise follow all the steps below)

Meanwhile, find that super sharp knife you keep, and sliver the steak into little pieces. Thin is key! Then lay them out in a single layer at the bottom of a soup bowl. This will ensure you have beautiful, (very) rare, tender beef pieces (if you like your beef better cooked, then add to the boiling stock about 30 seconds prior to serving.)

Also slice up spring onion very finely on the diagonal (ooooh, pretty!), and place to the side. We'll be cooking this at the end.

Find your condiments and place them out. I recommend black pepper (no salt, because that's in the stock and soy sauce), chili flakes or chili oil, lime wedges, and chopped up coriander and mint. Place these to the side too.

Next, scramble through the fridge drawers until you've found your vegetable-y bits. Mung bean sprouts (small handful), thai basil (several leaves), and baby spinach (or green, leafy equivalent - a small handful) do well. Place all of the vegetables into the bowl on top of the beef (we're creating an insulating blanket that will help cook the meat once the stock is added to the bowl).

Is your stock boiling? Excellent! Let's add our Asian Flavouring Options to it! (Oi! Stop drooling on the keyboard. And to the purists, yes, I know these aren't all Vietnamese. But they're fast and tasty!) This is very taste dependent, and also depends on what I find in my pantry, but I will usually add:

Here's where it all starts happening quickly. Throw a handful of the noodles into the boiling stock, and cook until they are heated and hydrated through. When the noodles are almost done, add the spring onion slivers (you can also add the beef at this point if you don't like it rare), and cook for another 30 seconds or so.

Then pour it into the bowl (create a blanket of noodles at the top of the bowl, and leave to sit for a minute to cook the beef and cool down a little), and distract yourself from throwing yourself into the imminent pho by condimenting to your heart's desire. Om nom nom.


With apologies to my Vietnamese cooking instructor, who would be horrified.

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