I was first introduced to “Phở” while working with Paul Mitchell in the late 1990s, when we visited a Vietnamese lunch spot he recommended in an Asian neighborhood in Richardson, TX. It was adequately filling, very tasty and evoked a sense of healthy re-vitalization before heading back to the grind.
Vietnamese Phở Bo
- 5 pounds beef marrow or knuckle bones
- 2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 2 pieces
- 2 (3-inch) pieces ginger, cut in half lengthwise and lightly bruised with the flat side of a knife, lightly charred (See below)
- 2 yellow onions, peeled and charred (See below)
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 ounces rock sugar, or 3 tablespoons sugar
- 10 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan
- 6 whole cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 pound dried 1/16-inch-wide rice sticks, soaked, cooked and drained
- 1/3 pound beef sirloin, slightly frozen, then sliced paper-thin across the grain
- 1/2 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin
- 3 scallions, cut into thin rings
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 1 pound bean sprouts
- 10 sprigs Asian basil
- 1 dozen saw-leaf herb leaves (optional)
- 6 Thai bird chilies or 1 serrano chili, cut into thin rings
- 1 lime, cut into 6 thin wedges
- Freshly ground black pepper
In a large stockpot, bring 6 quarts water to a boil. Place the bones and beef chuck in a second pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil vigorously for 5 minutes. Using tongs, carefully transfer the bones and beef to the first pot of boiling water. Discard the water in which the meat cooked. (This cleans the bones and meat and reduces the impurities that can cloud the broth.) When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. Skim the surface often to remove any foam and fat. Add the charred ginger and onions, fish sauce and sugar. Simmer until the beef chuck is tender, about 40 minutes. Remove one piece and submerge in cool water for 10 minutes to prevent the meat from darkening and drying out. Drain, then cut into thin slices and set aside. Let the other piece of beef chuck continue to cook in the simmering broth.
When the broth has been simmering for about 1 1/2 hours total, wrap the star anise and cloves in a spice bag (or piece of cheesecloth) and add to the broth. Let infuse until the broth is fragrant, about 30 minutes. Remove and discard both the spice bag and onions. Add the salt and continue to simmer, skimming as necessary, until you’re ready to assemble the dish. The broth needs to cook for at least 2 hours. (The broth will taste salty but will be balanced once the noodles and accompaniments are added.) Leave the remaining chuck and bones to simmer in the pot while you assemble the bowls.
To serve, place the cooked noodles in preheated bowls. (If the noodles are not hot, reheat them in a microwave or dip them briefly in boiling water to prevent them from cooling down the soup.) Place a few slices of the beef chuck and the raw sirloin on the noodles. Bring the broth to a rolling boil; ladle about 2 to 3 cups into each bowl. The broth will cook the raw beef instantly. Garnish with yellow onions, scallions and cilantro. Serve immediately, inviting guests to garnish the bowls with bean sprouts, herbs, chilies, lime juice and black pepper.
How to Char Ginger and Onions:
To char ginger, hold the piece with tongs directly over an open flame or place it directly on a medium-hot electric burner. While turning, char until the edges are slightly blackened and the ginger is fragrant, about 3 to 4 minutes. Char the onions in the same way. Peel and discard the blackened skins of the ginger and onions, then rinse and add to the broth.
Rice sticks, or banh pho, are translucent, linguini-shaped dried noodles sold in Asian markets. For pho, use the small, 1/16-inch-wide variety. To prepare them, first soak them in cold water for 30 minutes and drain. Then bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. When you’re ready to serve (not before), place the noodles, one portion at a time, into a sieve and lower it into the boiling water. Using chopsticks or a long spoon, stir so the noodles untangle and cook evenly. Blanch just until they’re soft but still chewy, about 10 to 20 seconds. Drain completely, then transfer to a preheated bowl. Cook the remaining noodles the same way. If you’re cooking for several people, you may also cook the noodles all at once by adding them directly to the pot of boiling water. Be sure to serve them immediately.
Cooking the meat with vegetables distorts flavor, so all veggies (except for aromatics like ginger and onion) are added after cooking. Since Vietnamese food is so simply prepared, using the freshest, highest-quality ingredients is essential.
Fish sauce (nuoc mam), a pungent, salty liquid made from fermented anchovies, adds depth and flavor to numerous Vietnamese dishes. For best results, choose bottles priced at $3 to $4 rather than $1, and pass on jars that are dark, which indicates oxidation or the presence of additives. Use fish sauce in glass jars, avoid plastic. Fish sauce should have a nice, even color, like iced tea. Three Crabs, Lobster Boy, and Phu Quoc are the recommended brands. When cooking with fish sauce, always add it to other liquids: Never place it directly in a hot, dry pan, which would broadcast its pungent, fishy odor throughout your kitchen in a less-than-pleasant way. Soy sauce is an acceptable vegetarian substitute, though it does lack fish sauce’s smoky complexity.
When prepping ingredients for Vietnamese cooking, cut everything into small, even sizes, which cook more quickly and evenly. A mandoline makes quick work of the paper-thin slices of onions that top this soup.
Asian basil, also called Thai or holy basil, has a delicate anise flavor. Regular (sweet) basil does not make a good substitute, as it’s too strong, use mint instead. Saw-leaf herb has a floral, cilantro-like flavor and three to four inch long, dark green leaves with serrated edges. Cilantro or Asian basil make good substitutes. Both herbs can be found in the produce section of Asian grocery stores or in farmers’ markets.
The Thai bird chili, a short, narrow, pointed, green or red variety, is not exclusively Thai — it’s also the Vietnamese hot pepper of choice. Thai bird chilis can be found at Asian grocery stores and better supermarkets. If you can’t find them, substitute fresh red serrano chilis, which are hotter and sweeter than their green counterparts.