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Phở (Vietnamese)

June 3, 2011

Pho is a Vietnamese hot soup dish.  It is probably the most aromatic and flavorful soup I have ever had.  Unknown in origin, its etymology is conjectured to stem from the French word for fire “feu”, as influenced by the French colonization of Vietnam from mid-1800s to about mid-1900s with the end of WWII and Japanese take over of Vietnam from France.  Other possible words Pho might be derived from are the Chinese fen for rice noodles or the Cantonese ho-fan for vermicelli noodles which produces the sound pho when combined.  Rice vermicelli noodles, alongside beef or chicken, are the main ingredient used in Pho so its origin most likely is from the Chinese cuisine.

A friend of mine from Vietnam who lives in Europe invited us for a pho late lunch.  It was a rainy cold day last summer and as we were slurping our pho broth, we asked if the dish is mostly eaten for lunch or dinner in her home country.  She remarked that indeed the most common mealtime to have pho is actually breakfast time.  In fact, according to Huong, one would wake up really early to beat the hot sun and start the day with it.  So, wake up at 4 and pho your system at 5, hm.  Very different from the coffee and doughnut approach at 10am!  You might think that eating meat first thing in the morning will somehow make you feel heavy but the hot broth running through your stomach may have some cleansing properties and be attributed to the generally lean body size of Vietnamese people, among other factors.

This meal can be made vegetarian-style, although the flavors enhanced by the beef may be difficult to substitute for.  As your lifestyle and climate conditions probably differ drastically from the wake-up-early-to-beat-the-hot-sun Vietnamese farmer, you will most likely choose to make this for dinner for your friends or family.  I personally make mine for dinner as I’m not into breakfasts (except on weekends), rushing to make it to work on time in the morning but if you insist on simulating the Vietnamese way, feel free to make your pho at the break of dawn.  Just don’t forget to set your alarm clock!


  • 1 small beef bone with marrow
  • 500g beef sirloin or tenderloin/filet mignon (for different parts of beef, see Merriam-Webster’s drawing)
  • 1 piece of ginger
  • 5 star anise
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 tbsps fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 pack of rice noodles (extra thin)
  • 2 spring onions
  • 1/4 tsp chili flakes
  • 1 lime
You can make a very elaborate pho using cloves, fennel seeds, cilantro, bean sprouts and basil in addition to all the ingredients above.  Alternatively, you can make a more simplified version of it, if you can’t get all the ingredients at once.  Remember though, any shortcut you take will result in a less flavorful meal.  The really simple version uses beef bullion cubes or canned broth, pho bullion cubes which somewhat resemble a muddled combination of the spice flavors listed above and no herb garnish.  Like anything in life, it depends how willing you are to compromise, in this case, flavor at the expense of time.  Having made the recipe with the full list of ingredients as well as the completely compromised one using dry cubes, this is one that makes me happy with a sufficient flavor content without the feeling of overdoing it with extra frills.  The break-even point.  In my opinion, a real beef broth even if you don’t have meat to add, the star anise and the spring onions (scallions, cilantro, Asian basil, mint or at least one type of herb) are essential.
1.  Make broth: In a large pot, bring 2 liters of water to a boil.  Place beef marrow bone in the boiling water and let simmer for 1 hour.  Scrape fat foam off the water surface if any.  Peel and chop ginger very finely.  Add condiments to broth – ginger, star anise, cinnamon sticks, fish sauce, sugar and salt.  Let cook on medium heat for 30 min uncovered.
2.  Prep noodles:  Soak rice noodles in cold water for 20-30 min.  [Start step # 3.]  In a large pot of boiling water, cook noodles for no more than 1 min.
3.  Garnish: Prepare ingredients for garnish by washing, cutting and arranging them ahead of time.  Cut spring onion into small “wheels”, lime into wedges and chili peppers into flakes, if not using dried ones.  If you opt out for the dried chili, add during step 1.  Slice beef meat across the grain paper-thinly.  The tender meat should cook instantaneously when hot broth is poured over.  However, if you’re worried, cook the meat at the end of step 1. for a few minutes before serving.  [Return to step 2.]
4.  Serve:  Place a serving size of noodles in bowls, put raw beef slices (or broth with cooked beef from pot) and ladle 1-2 cups of hot broth over noodles.  Sprinkle with spring onion, chili and/or other herbs, garnish with lime on the side and serve right away.

Now if you think this was complicated, take a look at this website describing different ways of making pho.  Also, for a truly authentic guide to pho, visit Jaden Hair’s Steamy Kitchen.

From → Asian, Meat, Seasonal

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