In Vietnam, pho is mostly a restaurant food. Although some people prepare it at home, most prefer the ritual of going to noisy soup shops where friends and families gather to slurp on pho while chitchatting and gossiping.
Whether you choose to try this delicacy at the many noodle shops that have opened in Southern California or cook it at home, keep the following in mind:
1. When ordering pho, beware. It often comes in many sizes, from small to xe lua, or “train size,” which is enough to feed two or three. Unless you’re super hungry, go for medium if you’re given a choice.
2. And be aware that a bowl of pho should never be shared except among small children. If you split a bowl, the proportions--noodles versus broth versus meat--will be thrown off balance. There won’t be enough broth to keep the ingredients hot, and the addition of herbs will cool the broth even faster.
3. You can choose individual or combination toppings, from beef served rare to well-done, to briskets and meatballs, even tripe, sinew, etc. I like pho tai chin, the rare and well-done combination, as in the accompanying recipe.
4. Begin eating as soon as the bowl arrives while the pho is piping hot. If you wait for it to cool, the noodles will expand and get soggy and the dish will taste bland. (Some pho connoisseurs don’t even talk while they eat; they save the serious chattering for later, while puffing on cigarettes and sipping coffee.)
5. A good way to begin is by sprinkling on black pepper, then adding bean sprouts, fresh chiles and a little squeeze of lime. Using your fingers, pluck the Asian basil leaves from their sprigs and, if available, shred the saw-leaf herbs and add them to the soup. Add them little by little, eating them as you go. If you put them in all at once, the broth will cool too fast and the herbs will overcook and lose their bright flavors. Chile sauce and hoisin sauce are also traditional condiments, but I avoid them because, to my taste, they mask the flavor of pho. You may like them, however.
6. Before eating, push all the condiments and garnishes into the hot broth and gently turn the noodles once or twice.
7. With spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other, pull the noodles out of the broth and eat, alternatively slurping on the broth. It’s normal and totally acceptable to be seen with clumps of noodles dangling from your mouth, eyes squinting from the steam and glasses all fogged up.
8. The broth is served in large amounts to keep the noodles warm and to help season the dish. It’s not necessarily meant to be totally consumed. But if you do happen to be in the mood, it is perfectly OK to tip the bowl and scoop out every single drop.
9. Consider finishing the meal with ca phe sua da, a Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk and ice. Brewed in individual filters at the table, it’s sweet and very strong. Get one if you’re planning a busy day. It’ll keep you buzzing for a while.
VIETNAMESE BEEF NOODLE SOUP (Pho Bo)
1 (2-pound) chuck roast
5 pounds beef marrow bones
2 (4-inch) pieces ginger root, unpeeled
1 large brown onion, peeled
1/3 cup fish sauce
5 tablespoons sugar
6 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon salt
NOODLES AND ASSEMBLY
1/2 pound beef sirloin steak, slightly frozen
1 1/2 pounds (1/8-inch-wide) fresh or dried flat rice stick noodles (banh pho)
1 brown onion, sliced paper thin
4 green onions, chopped
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 pound bean sprouts
20 sprigs Asian basil (rau que)
12 leaves culantro (saw-leaf herb, ngo gai)), optional
1/4 cup chopped Thai bird chiles or 1/4 cup thinly sliced serrano chiles
2 limes, cut into thin wedges
You can prepare the broth early in the day and assemble the dish just before serving. Make sure the bowls are preheated before using. Vietnamese cooks are very particular about making sure the broth comes out as clear as possible. This is why the roast and bones are brought to a boil, then transferred to a new pot of boiling water--the solids released from the initial boil are discarded with the first batch of water. If the onion begins to break up and muddy the broth before the recipe calls for it to be removed, take it out of the pot. And be sure to remove the spice bag before it starts to darken the broth or overpower the flavor.
Bring 6 quarts water to boil in large stockpot.
Put roast and bones in separate pot with water to cover and boil 5 minutes. Using metal tongs, remove roast and bones and add to first pot of boiling water. When water returns to boil, reduce heat and bring to simmer.
Char ginger and onion (see Chef’s Tip, H10). Rinse and add to broth. Add fish sauce and sugar. (Smell will initially be pungent but will subside.)
Simmer, skimming surface often to remove foam and fat, until roast is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove meat from broth, submerge in bowl of water 15 minutes to prevent meat from darkening and drying out, then wrap in plastic and set aside until ready to serve. (Refrigerate if soup is not being eaten immediately after cooking.)
Add water to pot if needed to bring to 5 quarts liquid. Put anise, cloves and cinnamon in dampened spice bag or wrap in damp cheesecloth and tie with string and add to broth. Let spices infuse about 1 hour in simmering broth, skimming surface often, then remove and discard spices and onion. (Note: Cooking spices too long makes broth dark and pungent; begin tasting broth after 45 minutes of simmering to check flavor.)
Add salt and keep on low simmer while preparing noodles and condiments. Broth should be rich enough to serve after 2 1/2 hours total cooking time, but can simmer longer; don’t turn heat on and off if eating soup same day. (Note: Broth may taste salty, but will balance out once noodles and accompaniments are added.)
NOODLES AND ASSEMBLY
Cut half of reserved roast from Beef Broth into thin slices and reserve remainder for another use. Cut partially frozen sirloin into paper thin slices. Put roast and sirloin on separate plates and set aside.
Bring large pot water to boil. Place handful of fresh noodles (enough for 1 serving) in sieve and lower into boiling water. Using fork or chopsticks, stir 15 seconds, then lift and shake off water. Transfer to large heated bowl. Repeat for 5 more bowls. (Note: If using dried noodles, soak in water to cover 20 minutes. Cook all at once until al dente, 2 to 3 minutes. Rinse well in warm water, then divide among heated bowls.)
Place few slices roast and sirloin on noodles in each bowl. Bring Beef Broth up from low simmer to rolling boil and ladle 3 cups broth on each serving.
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon sliced brown onion, 1 tablespoon green onions and 1 tablespoon cilantro on top of each bowl. Season with pepper to taste.
Garnish with bean sprouts, Asian basil, saw-leaf herb, chiles and squeeze of lime juice as desired at table.
6 main-course servings. Each serving with 3 cups broth:
649 calories; 1,873 mg sodium; 56 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 118 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 7.07 grams fiber.