Everybody needs to eat. It is a simple fact and it has made many successful entrepreneurs in restaurant business. There are Vietnamese restaurants all over the country. Even though this sophisticated cuisine is still largely unknown to the general public. The most popular dish is Pho and it is a secret of success in this most popular, challenging, colourful, tasty and traditional dish.
Vietnamese cuisine, in general, reflects the influence of many cultures and histories of the country. China ruled Vietnam for more than 1,000 years until 900 AD. C., but the Vietnamese retain their culinary culture instead of assimilating the Chinese style, leading to a distinctly different cuisine. The Mongol invasions of Vietnam during the 13th century also left a lasting mark on variations in Vietnamese dishes. Then the French arrived, taking control of the country in 1887, incorporating Vietnam into the French empire (1887-1954). The Japanese would occupy Vietnam during World War II.
Contacts with Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbors are Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, and all, including Vietnam, have been under the cultural influence of India, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Vietnamese cuisine remains original and distinctive from others with its unique features, such as using fish sauce (nuoc mam), or always having fresh herbs and vegetables to put in soups or as a side dish.
Pho, also called Pho Hanoi or Pho Bac, is one of the most popular northern specialties. Pho is made with beef, chicken, or seafood, but I prefer beef. I will share a recipe below. Pho is a typical comfort food that most people order when they go to Vietnamese restaurants. In fact, Pho is a street vendor’s food in Vietnam and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any time in between with many different sizes. Hearty, fortified noodle soup is an early-morning wake-up call, with multiple textures of hot broth, fresh ingredients, tender beef slices, chewy rice noodles, and crispy bean sprouts. These items demonstrate the uniqueness of everything in one bowl.
Beef Pho (can also be made with chicken) is made with spiced beef broth, poured over fresh rice noodles and paper-thin slices of raw beef in a bowl. It’s hauntingly fragrant and lightly spiced with cinnamon, star anise, fresh ginger, fennel, and nutmeg. A side dish filled with fresh basil, coriander (long saw-leaf herb), fresh mung bean sprouts, onions, chillies, lime juice, is prepared along with all the other Pho ingredients at the table when it’s time to eat . These go on top and are added while serving as a side and garnish the soup as desired.
Better yet, this is a made-to-order soup, prepared however you like and consumed in haste with both hands. Let him start eating, with chopsticks in one hand and a soup spoon in the other. The long noodles rise releasing steam, and it is appropriate to slurp them, a natural reaction to eating this hot soup. Sipping helps cool the noodles enough to make them swallowable. Along with the noodles, the pieces of meat or seafood are removed from the broth and dipped in Hoisin and Sriracha sauce. This sauce is served side by side in a small dipping bowl.
Homemade Pho is the best, but it is time consuming to prepare with many ingredients. All the time and energy invested will result in enormous amounts of flavor. Techniques for cooking Pho can vary from chef to chef. It seems that authentic recipes are never written down but taught within the family and to the children by letting them help in the family kitchen, and that is how I learned. Giving a recipe is a very personal gesture of friendship and respect in Vietnamese culture, and I hope that one day you will enjoy trying it. Here is my recipe. Makes 4-6 servings.
To make spiced beef broth: Start with 3 pounds of oxtail or other beef bones and flank steak. I prefer to clean them first, then put them in a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil over high heat. After it has reached a bowl, drain the water and proceed to cook the broth by covering Cover the bones with 10-14 cups of fresh water, add a little salt and the ingredients list below, then return to a boil.
A large piece of fresh ginger root – sliced and minced
a medium onion
a tablespoon of salt
Five whole star anise
two cinnamon sticks
four whole cloves
Two whole nutmeg
A piece of rock sugar or 1 tablespoon of sugar
Two teaspoons of fennel seeds
Add fresh minced ginger, onion, anise, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, cloves, and sugar to pot. Put the fennel seeds in a tea ball and add them to the broth.
When the broth comes to a boil for the second time, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Then strain, and you’ll have a nice flavoring broth to use.
1 pound Vietnamese flat rice noodles (fresh or dried is your choice)
1 pound beef, preferably beef eye round or rib eye that you slice into paper-thin slices
Fresh mung bean sprouts
sprigs of coriander (cilantro)
Thai basil leaves (not to be confused with sweet basil)
Chopped fresh scallions or chives
Fish sauce (nuoc mam)
Fresh hot chilies, thinly sliced
chili or sriracha sauce
Bring the beef broth to a boil while you prepare the rice noodles.
To cook the rice noodles: In a large bowl, cover the rice noodles with water and let them soak until doubled, about 30 minutes. Drain. Place a large handful of noodles (enough for one serving per bowl) in a colander and plunge into the boiling water, stir noodles with chopsticks for about 20 seconds until noodles are tender but firm (never overcook noodles). Shake the noodles dry and put them in a soup bowl. Place raw beef slices on top of the noodles and pour the boiling beef broth over the noodles and beef slices. Top with chopped chives and cilantro.
Serve hot with accompaniments.
Pho has made most Vietnamese restaurants very successful, and you can find it on their menu as a chef’s specialty. This unique soup has attracted many cultures to try and enjoy one of the different foods offered in Asian countries and around the world.
Pho, not just for dinner anymore!