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".
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!