Thursday, March 25, 2010

Making Vietnamese Phở

Up till now, I have steadfastly refused to discuss phở, the national dish of Vietnam. It's been a wise decision.

Like New Yorkers with their pizza, Hanoians take their phở seriously. An outsider, commenting on the merits of a particular bowl, had better know what he's talking about. An ill-considered comment will be swiftly rebutted by someone who's been slurping the stuff since babyhood. Passions run hot and connoisseurship is high; if you're not among the cognoscenti, you'd best remain silent.

After 11 months, however, I have begun to understand something about Vietnam's national dish. The validation of this came last week, when Hương at last showed me how to make phở. Not just any phở, but Hanoi phở. The real stuff. My palette had obviously become sufficiently sophisticated for her to begin unveiling the secrets of this subtle dish.

And make no mistake about it: phở is all about the subtleties. A hint of star anise, the fat content of the broth, just the right touch of herbs – these are the elements that distinguish a good phở from one that is euphoric.

What is phở? The simplest translation is "beef noodle soup" – but this prosaic title barely discloses its essence (I am restricting myself to phở bò – beef; chicken is worthy of a separate discussion).

Phở is, more precisely, a deep and rich stock, made of beef bones that have been simmered for hours, layered with meat and spices, and poured over medium-width rice noodles. No two phở preparations are alike...and this adds to its mystique.

Where does phở come from? Its early history is lost, but one detects the French influence in the name (pronounced roughly like "fur"), which conjures up the classic Gallic stew, pot au feu. Like Vietnamese phở, the French dish is made by simmering beef bones for hours, and then adding vegetables and herbs. It's possible that phở is simply a Vietnamese adaptation of that Franch staple.

Historians generally agree that phở bắc, northern phở, is the original phở. Like so many things in Vietnam, north and south do it in diferent ways. The southerners ladle it on thick: they use a lot of fish sauce and serve the phở with a hearty basket of herbs. Northerners are purists: a well-balanced stock and good quality beef are all that is necessary, and all those additional southern touches are generally regarded as detracting from the true phở experience.

How To Make Hanoi Phở. I offer this not as THE definitive Hanoi phở, but as one that will produce an authentic dish. We begin with the ingredients.

Beef bones, beef muscle (bò bắp), cinnamon, ginger, star anise, and shallots form the foundation. Thin-sliced beef tenderloin (bò thăn), green onions, cilantro, and lime are offered at mealtime.

The first step is to boil the bones with a bit of crushed ginger – bring them to a full boil...and throw out all the water. It's true! This removes impurities and helps to clarify the broth.

Once this is done, dry-roast the cinnamon and star anise in a pan, and grind them with a mortar and pestle. Char some shallots and ginger over a flame. Add them along with the roasted spices and the beef muscle (wrapped with thread to maintain its shape), to the bones. Refill the pot with water and simmer slowly.

And I mean slowly. Like any good stock, the longer it simmers, the richer the flavor. Three hours is considered an absolute minimum. A touch of fish sauce (nước mắm) may be added to the pot. But simmer it slowly...slowly...slowly...

...and that's basically it! Briefly boil the rice noodles, and blanch the tenderloin and green onions before tossing them into individual serving bowls with a bit of cilantro. Cut up some of the beef muscle and throw it in as well. Black pepper and lime to taste. White vinegar with slivers of garlic and red chillies is common at phở stalls; we didn't use it, and it wasn't missed. And our phở (okay, Hương's phở), simmered for 5 hours, turned out great!

Sounds simple? It is! That's why it's become one of the staple dishes of Vietnam. But do not let its simplicity fool you; patience, the quality of ingredients, and a certain je ne sais quoi make all the difference.

What Makes a Good Phở? In a word: balance. No single flavor should dominate. In aroma and taste, one should be able to discern the cinnamon, star anise, green onions and cilantro, but not at the expense of the beef. Too much spice spoils the soup; too little makes it flavorless.

The beef must be chosen carefully: fresh and red are all that will do. Make sure the tenderloin slices are still red when thrown into the bowl. The steaming hot broth will continue to cook it.

As for the broth, you want it clear, but slightly fatty. Like any good stock, it must have some body. The noodles, which I've barely discussed, should be al dente, of course. In all, you want the beef to carry the dish, with full support from its neighbors.

At its worse, phở is thin, weak, and flavorless. At its best it's heaven poured into a bowl.


  1. does Vegetarian Pho exist in Vietnam? I love Veg Pho here in Seattle.

  2. It does, but it's not too common. Mainly found in Buddhist temples and a few vegetarian restaurants, I've heard it can taste pretty watery if not done right. More common is a semi-vegetarian pho, in which the stock is still made with meat, but no additional meats are added. Of course, that's only considered semi-vegetarian if you're in Vietnam... :-)

  3. I am hungry.Can I have some ? YUM

    Tran Huong.

  4. Huong seems to be a good cook :O and you are a good cook too Lebron. :P Ya'all make a good team :D
    Its look deliciousssss btw Yum yum yum
    Kobe :P

  5. I hate to admit it but i am intimidated by the making of pho. You have, however, inspired me and i'm heading to the market for fresh ingredients! Wish me luck.

  6. Hey, are you Pinoy??? Mabuhay ! Well anyways i am now base in HCMC and loving it visit my blog: aly's dish
    i have fun reading your blog. kabayan.

  7. Cognoscenti! From gnoscere, to be getting to know. If you're gonna use a fancy woid, ya better spell it right!