Pho is a traditional Vietnamese dish that can be found all over Vietnam. Super cheap, authentic, fresh, healthy, everything you could ever want while backpacking! Coming from Melbourne and its fantastically diverse cuisine, I had tried the traditional noodle soup dish in the Vietnamese suburb of Richmond. I thought it was pretty good… but going to Vietnam and tasting it fresh at roadside cafes, it blew my mind: “Hi my name is Sophie and I am totally addicted to Pho.”.
Pronounced “Fuh”, this light and fragrant soup is eaten throughout the day; for breakfast all the way through to dinner, or even for a sneaky midnight munch. It’s a popular street food dish and also features in speciality restaurants, but some of the best I tasted were about $1-$2 from a roadside plastic seated café.
It consists of a broth with rice noodles and a mix of herbs, spices, vegetables and meat. It can be made with chicken or beef but modern variations include tofu to appeal to the vegetarians of the world. Seasoning ingredients include (But they will all uniquely vary!) chili, fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, lime, pepper, Thai/Asian basil, shallots, beansprouts and hoisin sauce. However, the secret is in the broth. It needs to have a good quantity of wholesome bones to boil and make a nutritious broth, plus various other flavourings, such as, cinnamon, star anise, roasted ginger, roasted onion, coriander, fennel seed and cloves. A delicious broth can make the dish mind-blowingly fulfilling whilst a bland broth can leave you sadly looking at your noodles with a tear of hungry disappointment. But even so, the condiments that are always provided and present at the table can transform the Pho from average to incredible.
Firstly, a little history before I get down to the delicious details. It originated from Northern Vietnam, most likely in the city Hanoi, in the early 20th Century. No one is entirely sure where the dish came from but it is believed to be a recipe orally handed down from generation to generation since there’s no early written history of Pho. Its appearance corresponds with the French occupation which has led some to wonder if it was a French influence on traditional soup broths. However when it came about, street vendors seized this dish with gusto and cooked up a storm for Vietnam making it the traditional dish on the streets. They definitely differ across the expanse of the country and no two Pho kitchens will produce the same taste in their bowls. The North tends to have wider noodles, clear and simpler broth and more green onion, whereas the South has a bigger variety of fresh herbs, a sweeter taste and they fully exploit the condiments.
To make your own, it can get confusing as there are so many different recipes. But try it out, experiment, try different ones and figure out your preferred fragrant taste. You can make your own broth which is quite time consuming but a great victory if it’s successful… or you can buy the stock in Pho broth cubes which makes it a tad easier and faster.
But here’s a lovely little recipe which will be perfect for a chilly eve or for a meal of clean-eating:
1. Place the beef knuckle in a very large (9 quart or more) pot. Season with salt, and fill pot with two gallons of water. Bring to a boil, and cook for about 2 hours.
2. Skim fat from the surface of the soup, and add the oxtail, radish and onions. Tie the anise pods, cinnamon stick, cloves, peppercorns and ginger in a cheesecloth or place in a spice bag; add to the soup. Stir in sugar, salt and fish sauce. Simmer over medium-low heat for at least 4 more hours (the longer, the better). At the end of cooking, taste, and add salt as needed. Strain broth, and return to the pot to keep at a simmer. Discard spices and bones. Reserve meat from the beef knuckle for other uses if desired.
3. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Soak the rice noodles in water for about 20 minutes, then cook in boiling water until soft (not mushy!), for about 5 minutes. Slice the frozen beef paper thin. The meat must be thin enough to cook instantly.
4. Place some noodles into each bowl, and top with a few raw beef slices. Ladle boiling broth over the beef and noodles in the bowl. Serve with Hoisin sauce and Sriracha sauce on the side. Set onion, chili, bean sprouts, basil, green onions, and lime out at the table for individuals to add toppings to their liking.
5. Ta Da!
Mmmmmm, try it out and see how you like it! Why not make it for a group of friends? Make the Pho then lay out all the condiments and extras down the centre of the table for everyone to flavour their bowls to their personal preferences. Dinner party with a twist! Or book the next flight to Vietnam to try some real authentic munch.
I’ll leave you with the words of The Lonely Planet’s Vietnam expert, Brett Atkinson, “It’s comfort food, soul food, it’s a country in a bowl.” Pho sure.Tweet