Of all the delectable dishes, in all the lands, in all the world... there is one that stands above the rest. One whose deliciousness and desirability goes untouched by time and circumstance. One that is so much more than a mundane bowl of noodle soup with vegetable toppings. One dish to rule them all, one dish to find them, one.... What? Anyways. What is this amazing dish, you ask? Well, I'll tell you, because I'm nice like that.This dish is...
What is pho exactly? Haters and nay-sayers will try to tell you that pho is little more than a glorified chicken noodle soup, but those people are just plain wrong. In simple terms, pho consists of silky rice noodles, choice cuts of thinly sliced beef, and a rich, flavorful broth that marks the true difference between authenticity and amateur hour. You can't just go the the store, buy rice noodles, a steak, and a can of Campbell's Condensed broth... Real pho requires several pounds of beef bones, a very particular blend of spices, and should take at minimum 6 hours of cooking time. Serious cooking, but it is seriously that good. Complex in flavor, yet deceptively simple in appearance pho has gained widespread popularity in the West during recent decades. But what it's origins? Let's back up a bit.
Pho is widely considered to be the national dish of Vietnam, a country I had the good fortune to visit just last month. The historical origin of the dish is a bit murky, but many have suggested that Pho originated in conjunction with the French colonization of Northern Vietnam in the late 1800's. Some theorists posit that Pho arose as an interpretation of the French dish 'pot a feu' (pot of fire), in that both dishes share many similarities in terms of taste, ingredients, and preparation - both are a beef-based stews, that require several hours to prepare correctly, and also demand that certain ingredients such as onion and ginger be roasted on an open flame beforehand.
Another aspect of pho that needs noting is the marked difference between Pho Bac (Pho of the North) and Pho Nam (Pho of the South). There is a significant difference in the history, culture, and feel of northern Hanoi vs. southern Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), and the pho being served in both regions reflects this difference. Pho Bac tends to be simpler and forgoes the frills and extra additions that are prevalent in the South. Pho Bac is somewhat more austere in it's ingredients list - a more subtly spiced beef broth, rice noodles, and thin slices of beef. In contrast, Pho Nam generally boasts a more pungently spiced broth, allows for the addition of Hoisin and fish sauce, allows for the use of garnishes such as herbs and bean sprouts, and can often be found with other types of meat including chicken, meatballs, and even tripe or tendon.
Ingredients and Preparation:
So fast forward. You're standing in your kitchen thinking to yourself: Man, would I like to make some pho! But how??
Consistent with the variations throughout Vietnam, there is no one ultimate pho recipe. Even among the best pho restaurants in Denver (which has a great pho scene), no two places will taste exactly alike - though some are definitely better than others. As always, the internet complicates things further as it offers up about a thousand and one ways to go about making the "perfect" bowl. This being said, there are certain elements of pho that remain consistent throughout almost all recipes, and therefore deserve to be mentioned. First stop: the spices.
Sidenote: Much of the following is adapted from a recipe that can be found at the bottom of this article.
Primary Pho Spices:
- WHole Star Anise
- Cinnamon Sticks
- Whole Cloves
Though these three are kind of like the Holy Trinity of pho, you will often find recipes that also call for whole fennel, whole cardamon, and whole coriander as well. If you're looking to make pho for yourself, maybe use only the cardinal three in your first batch, and then experiment with adding in one or two of the others as you move along. Important note: Get fresh spices in their whole form!!! Don't even think about buying one of those ready made pho spice sachets... As the flavor of pho hinges significantly on the spices, you don't want to ruin everything by trying to cut corners. Also, you'll be wanting the whole (not ground) version of everything, because otherwise you won't be able to sift it all out later, leading to a broth that is cloudy in appearance and overbearing in flavor. Wrap your spices in cheese cloth and tie off the top, or buy a small spice bag from your local super-market - this way once everything is done boiling you can simply remove the sachet. No muss, no fuss.
The Bones! And meat...
- For broth: Beef knuckles and (Optional) oxtails or Chuck
- For eating: Beef chuck, brisket, and/or Rare Flank
After spices, comes the bones. Sounds a bit freaky... but they are very necessary. On top of being rich and delicious, bone broth is also purported to have a whole host of health benefits as well. Why can't you just use pre-made beef stock? Because that's for the weak. When you boil bones with a high marrow and connective tissue content you're extracting the fat (and flavor) from the marrow, as well as breaking down the collagen in the connective tissue. This break down results in the formation of gelatin, which in turn creates a deliciously rich flavor and silky mouth feel. The thing is, you can't just throw beef bones into a pot, walk away for twelve hours, and then expect to come back to something delicious. Bones and connective tissues have high levels of impurities, meaning that the bones must be rinsed well, and then parboiled (in my experience) at least twice.
What does parboiling mean? Rinse the bones, throw them into a large pot of boiling water and allow them to simmer. As this process occurs you will notice that large amounts of weird looking scum and other unappealing junk stuff rises to the top. After about 20 minutes of boiling, pour the water and bones through a strainer, clean out the pot, and then clean off the bones. I would suggest repeating the process twice, but whether or not you do is really up to you and the quality of the bones you bought. If you purchased bones from a good butcher with quality meat you should be fine, but if you, like me, are one a budget and bought lower quality bones, it wouldn't hurt to parboil again.
Deeply Charred Ginger and Onions
The final elements are the ginger and onions. Again, you can't just chop them up, throw them in, and call it quits. For the best flavor, it is very important that you deeply char both the onions and the ginger. This process amplifies and sweetens the taste, adds mouthwatering smokiness, and greatly increases the depth of the flavor profiles. The ideal way to go about this process is to burn the crap out of the outside of both ginger and onions - you want a black, fully charred layer outside with an untouched raw center; however, this can be difficult without a gas stove or grill. Putting them on a rack in the oven will certainly do if there's no other options, but just know that some of the flavor might get leeched away as it is a less intense cooking process.
We've finally made it! You've prepared your fresh spice sachet, parboiled the bones, charred your onions and ginger, and now you're finally ready to throw it all into the pot and get to simmering. Some recipes suggest simmering for only an hour, while other suggest a low simmer for 12 hours, or even as long as 24. Stay away from those one hour simmers, as it is not nearly long enough and you're selling yourself short on the potential flavor profile. As a general rule, I would say that the longer the simmer, the better, but I have read recipes claiming that over 12 hours is just excessive. At this point, it's really up to you. The recipe I've adapted suggests no more than 5, but I would suggest no less than 8 because though the flavor is probably developed by 5 or 6, the longer you boil the bones the more gelatin and minerals accrue, meaning more health benefits for you.
- Bean Sprouts - Lime - Mint - Basil -
- Culantro (Not Cilantro) - Onion - Chili Peppers -
I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it kind of is, but don't let that deter you. This is the perfect project for a lazy Sunday, and pho broth can be frozen and then used later, so if you make a giant vat you'll be doing your present and future self a huge favor. Also, try not to stress about following any one recipe to the T. As I said, there are literally hundreds of variations in terms of what additional spices are added, what cuts and types of meat are used, and which garnishes are preferred on the finished product. I've tried to stick to the essential ingredients and processes that I've found to be consistent through all pho recipes I've looked at, but after you have those sorted out, feel free to go wild. You do you. This is your pho.
My Sources and Good Articles for Further Reading:
- The History and Evolution of Pho: A Hundred Years Journey
- The Food Lab: How to Make Traditional Vietnamese Pho
- Beef Pho Noodle Soup Recipe
- Bone Broth, Broth, and Stocks
Have you ever had pho? If the answer is no, you should stop reading this and rectify that situation immediately. Try to go some place that is owned and operated by Vietnamese people, because those places are pretty much always the best. Are you inspired to try and make this at home? You should! And if you do find me on Facebook and let me know what/if you make any changes and what you think. I'm always looking to improve my recipes :)
Enjoy the pho-ntastic view! Hah!