There are noodle soups and there is pho, Vietnam’s richly complex gift to the world.
Pho (say: fuh) may prompt wisecracks and pun-ny T-shirts, judging by those we saw at Ho Chi Minh City’s Ben Thanh Market during a recent trip. But in Vietnam and at Vietnamese restaurants around the world, there is artistry in its creation.
From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, chefs at high-end restaurants and cooks at chain eateries understand pho’s power. So do street vendors, those serving customers who slurp the restorative brew while perched on child-size plastic stools.
“When you eat a bowl of soup in Vietnam, you experience almost everything, culinarily speaking, that the Vietnamese value,” chef Charles Phan writes in his book “Vietnamese Home Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, $35).
Those values? A stock that’s “never thickened,” a mix of textures, plus aromatics, often fresh herbs, toasted garlic and chopped green onions. And while Phan notes that Vietnamese cooks prepare both brothy meal openers and full-meal noodle soups, it is the noodle soup called pho that is the worldwide star.
And breakfast in Vietnam. Each morning, despite the sultry weather, we slurped our way through huge bowls of comforting, herb-blessed pho. As a child in Da Lat, Phan recalls awakening each day to street vendors selling bowls of pho.
“If you’re having a bowl of hot soup, it just really kind of balances you to start your day,” Phan told us by phone from San Francisco, home to his Slanted Door restaurants. “I just always feel calm and rejuvenated when I drink broth.”
The deeply flavored pho broth — paired with noodles and meat, usually pho bo (beef) or pho ga (chicken), plus garnishes — soothes and satisfies at breakfast (or lunch or supper).
“When people walk by, when you smell the aroma from the pot, you can tell whether it’s beef or chicken,” Vu Trong Khang, a chef at Hoa Tuc restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City and instructor for its cooking classes, told us. “You know it’s beef pho when you smell cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and cloves.”
Also influencing a stock’s flavor, says Phan: “We don’t roast the bone, we blanch the bone. ... And there’s none of the sweetness that comes from celery and carrot.” Instead, it comes from roasted onion, ginger, star anise and other spices in the beef stock, he adds. In chicken, only ginger and onion perfume the stock.
There are variations, of course, by region as well as from cook to cook. Khang, for example, considers the broth in Hanoi lighter in color than that served in Ho Chi Minh City, and Phan finds cooks in the north use fewer spices and varieties of meats.
Whatever the variations, pho makes a delicious meal. It may not replace oatmeal at your breakfast table. Then again, slurping oatmeal isn’t OK but, as Phan says, slurping pho is perfectly fine.
BEEF NOODLE SOUP (PHO BO)
Prep: 30 minutes Cook: 50 minutes Makes: 6 servings
Adapted from Charles Phan’s “Vietnamese Home Cooking.” His aromatic stock is flavored with star anise, cinnamon, clove and cardamom and simmers for at least 5 hours. Don’t have the time? You can sub with pho soup bases, which can be found in some supermarkets. Or consider simmering a light beef broth (hold the carrots and celery) with a small cinnamon stick, a whole clove, a star anise pod and a cardamom pod for an hour. To make paper-thin raw beef top round slices, freeze the meat for 15 minutes, slice thin, then pound thinner with a meat mallet.
1 pound beef brisket
3 quarts beef stock (see recipe, page 5)
1 package (16 ounces) dried wide rice noodles, cooked according to package directions
12 ounces beef top round, thinly sliced
1 bunch green onions, trimmed, thinly sliced, about 1 cup
Garnishes: Thai basil sprigs, mung bean sprouts, lime wedges, jalapenos thinly sliced into rings, Sriracha sauce, hoisin sauce
1. Place brisket in a large pot; add stock. Heat to a boil over high heat; lower to a vigorous simmer. Simmer until cooked through, 30-45 minutes. To check doneness, remove brisket from pot; poke with chopstick. Juices should run clear.
2. A few minutes before brisket is ready, prepare an ice-water bath. When brisket is done, remove from pot; submerge in ice water. Reserve cooking liquid. When brisket is cool, remove from ice water. Pat dry; thinly slice against the grain. Set aside.
3. Return stock to a boil. Season with fish sauce, if needed. Arrange garnishes on a platter, sauces alongside. Divide cooked rice noodles evenly among large warmed soup bowls. Divide brisket slices among the bowls, then raw beef slices. (They will cook lightly when stirred into the broth.) Ladle boiling hot stock over top. Top with green onions; serve immediately with garnishes.