Often enough, it’s not the Michelin-star meals that leave you feeling cozy and nostalgic. It’s the simple ones. And whether you’ve visited Vietnam or not, one of the nation’s most popular dishes can be found in small noodle shops around the world.
Depending on who you talk to, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a savory noodle-based broth soup that natives swear is a better cure for the common cold than the Western world’s chicken noodle soup. So, what’s the deal with this dish, and how can you make an authentic bowl of it?
What is Pho?
Pho is a noodle soup with a bone-broth base. The most common style includes thinly sliced beef. But you can find a number of variations including seafood, chicken, and vegetable. You might think that pho is just a type of ramen, but the noodles are entirely different. Ramen is made from wheat while pho uses Bahn pho rice noodles. There are two main variations: pho nam and pho bac. Pho nam is the version that most people encounter while pho bac is said to be the “original” version created in Northern Vietnam.
What’s the Difference Between the Two Styles?
Pho bac is a more simplified version of the dish. Typically, you’ll have only bahn pho noodles, sliced beef, and bone broth made by boiling beef bones for several days. In contrast, pho nam features a bone broth infused with spices. However, on the side, most restaurants or home chefs will offer basil, bean sprouts, and optional toppings like lime, hoisin sauce, or Sriracha.
When Was Pho Created?
While the specific origins aren’t confirmed, pho is believed to have been created during Vietnam’s French occupation in the 1880s. Experts have pinpointed the Nam Dinh and Hanoi regions as the true originators. Some even say that the word “pho” is a form of the French word “feu” which means fire. So, it’s possible that pho is a Vietnamese twist on the French dish, pot au feu.
After World War II, many North Vietnamese moved south to avoid the communist regime, bringing their dish with them. The soup was a hit, but the South Vietnamese put their own twist on it, which led to the formation of pho nam. Once the Vietnam War ended, many Southern Vietnamese migrated to other countries, introducing their version to other parts of the world.
How do I Make Authentic Pho?
There are countless recipes out there, but the one below is from Andrea Nguyen's award winning cookbook, Into The Vietnamese Kitchen, and is one of the top rated. This recipe serves eight. But remember that pho isn’t a dish that’s meant to be rushed.
- 2 yellow onions sliced in half
- 4-inch piece fresh ginger unpeeled, sliced in half
- 5 pounds beef leg or knuckle bones
- 6 quarts water
- 5 star anise
- 6 whole cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds (optional)
- 1 pod cardamom (optional)
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds (optional)
- 1 pound boneless beef chuck, rump brisket, or cross-rib roast, trimmed, and cut into large chunks
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- tablespoon sugar
- 2 pounds small flat rice noodles
- Cooked beef from the broth
- 1/2 pound eye of round sirloin, London broil, flank steak or tri-tip steak, thinly sliced across the grain
- 1 yellow onion sliced thin, soaked in cold water to cover for 30 minutes and drained
- 2 scallions green parts only, thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
- 3 cups fresh bean sprouts
- Thai basil
- 2 Thai or serrano chiles thinly sliced
- 2 limes cut into wedges
Make the broth
- Set oven to low broil and place the onion and ginger, cut side up, on a baking sheet. Brush the halves with oil and broil until slightly charred, turning half way. Remove from heat.
- Parboil the beef bones: Fill a large stockpot with water and bring to a boil. Boil the bones vigorously for three minutes to release impurities. Dump bones and water, then rinse them to remove any clinging residue. Clean the pot and fill with six quarts of clean water. Return the bones to the pot and add the charred onion, ginger, spices, beef, fish sauce, and sugar.
- Boil over high heat, then lower heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer, uncovered, for one and a half hours. Strain any scum that rises to the surface.
- When the boneless meat is slightly chewy, transfer the meat to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate. Continue simmering the broth for another hour and a half.
- Strain the broth and discard any remaining solids. Skim as much fat as possible from the broth’s surface. Season as needed with salt, fish sauce, and sugar. This should yield four quarts of broth.
Assembling the bowls
- Soak dried rice noodles in hot tap water for 15 minutes until they are pliable and opaque before draining. Fresh noodles can be untangled, placed in a colander, and quickly rinsed under cold running water.
- Cut the cooked beef across the grain into thin slices and set aside. Prepare the raw onion, scallions, and cilantro leaves for adding to the bowls.
- Fill a separate large pot with water and boil. For each bowl, place some of the noodles on a strainer and immerse in the water for 10 seconds. Immediately remove the strainer, draining excess water back into the pot, and empty the noodles into a bowl.
- Top the bowls with cooked and raw beef. Add the raw onion, scallions, and cilantro leaves.
- You need boiling hot broth to cook the raw beef. Bring broth to a boil. Add about two cups of broth into each bowl.