The national dish of Vietnam, phở (full name phở bo to specify the beef flavored soup), is one of the most delicious foods in the world! It's wildly popular in Southeast Asia, to the point where you can find phở in Asia in the same way you can find pizza in the United States. However, few persons in the American mallrat crowd know about phở. That's their loss – and your gain. If you've never tried phở, then run (don't walk) to an authentic Vietnamese restaurant and have some right away! It's not especially expensive; a huge bowl of it typically costs $7 or less. But once you've had phở, you won't be satisfied with just one bowl – you'll be coming back for it again and again. People who’ve never tried Vietnamese food tend to shy away, as they’re afraid it could have spices so intense they might burn their tongues off. Phở actually starts out sweet and mild; but hot sauces are included as a garnish so you can add as much or as little as you like. When I first tried it, the sweetness was unlike anything I'd ever had before – it wasn't a sugary, syrupy sweetness, but rather a fresh one that likely came from the cilantro, mint, and ginger used to flavor this dish. This dish is served with lime wedges, bean sprouts, mint leaves, hoisin sauce, and Sriracha hot sauce so that people who like it hot and spicy can add as much heat as they wish.
That's why when I had my first bowl of phở, the first thought that came to me (well, the second thought after marveling at the taste) was, "I have got to make this at home!" And I found out that it's not as easy to make phở at home as you might think. My first attempts to make it resulted in a dark brown, greasy soup, which contrasted with the light color and taste of professionally made phở. If this happens when you make phở at home, the best advice I can give is to keep practicing. Even poorly made phở is still very tasty, and it's worth the effort of making it. In addition to its use in traditional phở, the phở broth itself is terrific for making rice. Boil jasmine rice in this stuff instead of plain water, and you'll have some of the most delicious rice you'll ever eat.
Many of the ingredients in phở are easy to find at your local supermarket, but a few key ingredients are more difficult to obtain, especially the beef knuckle bones. If you're fortunate enough to live near a genuine Oriental food market, you'll be able to pick up the beef bones at a low price; if not, you'll probably find beef bones to be hard to come by, and often much more expensive. Likewise, phở is so popular that Oriental markets sell packets of phở spices, especially so that you can boil up your own phở broth with little effort. There's even a "phở flavor paste" that's meant to be added directly to water, but this is seen as poor quality stuff. If you're going to make phở at home, go for the fresh spices and don't bother with the phở flavor paste.
If you can't get beef bones to boil, you can do a substitution by using four quarts of beef broth from the store, mixed in with two quarts of water. On its own, beef broth is too thick to serve as "genuine" phở broth, which is why it should be diluted with water.
Utensils needed: Large stock pot, fine strainer (for straining fat from the broth), second pot for the strained broth, large bowl for soaking rice noodles, cheesecloth pouch or bag (or a stainless steel tea diffuser if you can't get cheesecloth)
(Note that this is the approximate amount of spices for 6 quarts of broth, or 1 1/2 gallons. Increase the amount of spice if you are making large amounts of broth.)
Garnishings for phở – to be added upon serving the finished soup. All of these are optional, but very popular. If you're only making the broth you don't need any of these, but if you're serving the soup you will need at least the noodles, plus the meat cooked in the broth.
Prepare your phở spice packet using the listed ingredients. (If you have access to an Oriental food market, you will be likely to find phở spice packets there for a cost of $2 or less.) In a skillet or saute pan, heat up the
dry spices for the spice packet (star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, cardamom pod, coriander, fennel seed, peppercorns) until the spices become aromatic and you can smell the aroma. Place the spices in a bowl (remember, they're hot) and prepare your spice packet. A traditional spice packet consists of a small cheesecloth bag or pouch, with the spices added and tied shut. If you can't get a cheesecloth to wrap up your spice packet, use one or more stainless steel tea diffusers (on sale at most supermarkets or other kitchen suppliers).
In the heated skillet, take the halves of onion and ginger and char them: heat them in the pan until just a little black char shows on the surface. The surface color will become slightly darker. Remove the onions and ginger from the heat, and place aside.
Many phở recipes call for one large stock pot, full of boiling water. I find it convenient to use two separate pots, one medium to large size and the second pot as big as you can get. This way you can place the blanched bones into the pot of boiling water. You won't have to drain the pot, wash it out, fill it up again, and bring the water to boiling a second time.
Put the beef bones into your smaller stock pot with boiling water, and boil the bones for ten minutes. The surface of the water will be covered in an ugly scum, as fat and impurities will cause a thick foam to form on the surface of the bubbling liquid. This fat needs to be removed to make the broth clear, thin, and tasty. Drain the stockpot (don't throw out the bones!), rinse the bones clean. This will remove much of the fat from the bones. Put the bones into the second big stockpot of boiling water, and add the beef roast to the water. Once the water is boiling, lower the heat down to a very low simmer. Add in the charred onions and ginger, garlic, salt, sugar, fish sauce, and the phở spice packet.
While the broth is simmering, rinse and clean out the first stockpot. This way we can use it later, to prepare the rice noodles, which must be made immediately before serving.
As the phở broth boils, more fat and impurities will cause a thick foam to form on the surface of the bubbling liquid. This fat needs to be removed to make the broth clear, thin, and tasty. To strain the fat from the water using this method, a small fine strainer with a handle is used to skim the fat from the surface of the broth, over and over, for as long as the broth is cooking. If you don't want to do this, use a second stockpot and a larger fine mesh. This way, after 90 minutes you will be able to strain the broth into the second pot, then return it to the original pot.
After about 60 minutes, the broth should be strained enough to cover the pot and let it simmer. The covered pot will trap heat and moisture, allowing the roast to thoroughly cook. Check the pot every 30 minutes, and strain off any additional scum that may accumulate on the surface of the broth. Continue to simmer the broth with its ingredients and spices for a total of three hours. (Some phở recipes call for simmering the bones for five hours or more, but the bones are completely used after three hours; there isn't much point to simmering them after that.)
As the phở approaches three hours of cooking, you can prepare the phở garnishings. Chop the scallions, and cilantro. These will need to be added to the phở bowl immediately before serving. The other garnishings can be laid out on their own plates or bowls for your guests, so they can pick and choose whichever ones they want to add to their soup. A typical plate of phở garnishings includes a pile of bean sprouts, sprigs of basil and mint leaves, sliced wedges of lime, sliced chili peppers, and bottles of hoisin and sriracha sauce on the side.
Fill the second, smaller stockpot with water once again, and bring it to a good roiling boil.
After three hours, remove the beef roast from the pot. Slice the roast into thin slices, and put aside to be served as part of the final soup. It's okay to let the cooked beef cool off while the other garnishings are prepared, because this is going to be added to the bowl of hot soup.
Rice noodles will congeal very quickly, so you should wait until you are almost ready to serve the phở. Prepare the noodles as follows: Place the dry noodles in a large strainer, and lower the strainer into the pot of boiling water. After only a couple minutes of soaking in the hot water, the noodles will be ready to add to your guests' bowls. Remove the strainer from the boiling water. Serve the rice noodles directly to the soup bowls. Add your slices of cooked beef to the soup bowls, on top of the noodles. If you are serving the additional uncooked beef sirloin, add the slices of beef to the soup bowls before the phở broth is poured into them. When the hot broth is added, it will instantly cook the beef slices.
Serve the broth by pouring it into your prepared soup bowls with rice noodles and uncooked beef slices. To each bowl of hot soup, add the cooked beef, chopped scallions, basil, and cilantro.
After this, your guests can add all other garnishings to their soup.
One more thing – in Far East culture, it's perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodles and drink right from the bowl!
March 25, 2012: My third attempt at making phở bo (beef phở) produced the most satisfying results so far. My two main worries were that the corned beef brisket would be chewy and rubbery, as it was when I tried to fry it last week; and that the rice noodles would congeal into a gooey mass, as they've done each time before. But I overcame both of these problems, which is why I'm happy with this phở. The instructions for preparing the brisket said to remove it from the broth after 90 minutes, but my concern about it being tough and rubbery made me decide to let it simmer in the broth for the entire three hours – a good choice. The corned beef cut very easily with a knife, and the slices practically came apart in my mouth and weren't chewy at all…which is my favorite way to enjoy corned beef. As for the rice noodles, I managed to find a good way to bring them to the proper consistency: simply place the dry uncooked noodles in a bowl, cover them completely with boiling water, and let them soak in the hot water no more than five minutes before taking them out and placing them in the soup bowl.
It's still not restaurant-quality phở, and I daresay it will take years of practice before I can do anything that good; but this is a phở I would not be ashamed to serve to dinner guests.
Making phở requires a lot of preparation and work in terms of ingredients, effort, cooking time, and preparation. It's an all-day project, and you really need to prepare a huge pot of broth to make this all worthwhile. That's phở with all of the ingredients: rice noodles, broth, meat, garnishings, and spicy sauces. Otherwise, it's far easier to simply drive to the nearest metropolitan area (a 15 minute drive), go to an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, and pay $7 for a huge bowl of phở that will keep me satisfied for the rest of the day.
On the other hand, I have more phở broth now to make flavored jasmine rice. That also makes me happy. And the taste of this phở was definitely worth waiting all day for.
June 8, 2018: I'm not a heavy follower of most of the celebrity chefs, but I was saddened to hear of the passing of Anthony Bourdain in June of 2018. That's because Bourdain did indeed change my life in a small but meaningful way: he introduced me to Vietnamese phở, which is possibly the best noodle soup in the entire world. In 2011 I watched a video of Bourdain's TV series No Reservations (season 5, episode 6, "Food Porn"), in which he practically had an orgasm on camera when he ate this Vietnamese noodle dish. It was funny, and it inspired me to try pho myself, in Boston's Chinatown. And my life has never been the same. I will indeed go out of my way for a bowl of phở, and if you've been fortunate enough to experience phởyourself, you'll probably feel the same way.
Sadly, the initial news reports on Bourdain's death said he had unexpectedly committed suicide. This made his words in this video sadly and even painfully ironic: "For me, a good bowl of phở will always make me happy – take me to that special place where everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts." He died in France, on the far side of the world from his beloved Vietnam. Perhaps if he had been in Vietnam, he could have drowned his sorrows in a heaping bowl of phở.