There are noodle soups and there is pho, Vietnam's richly complex gift to the world.
Pho (say: fuh) may prompt wisecracks and punny tee 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 (aka Saigon), chefs at high-end restaurants, cooks at chain eateries and street vendors, those serving customers who slurp the restorative brew while perched on child-size plastic stools, understand pho's power.
"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 warm 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 during a phone chat from San Francisco, home to his Slanted Door family of 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 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 cardamon, cinnamon, star anise and cloves."
Also influencing the 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 a roasted onion and ginger, star anise and the other spices."
There are regional variations, of course, 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)
Adapted from Charles Phan's "Vietnamese Home Cooking." The aromatic stock is often flavored with star anise, cinnamon, clove and cardamom. Pho soup bases can be found in some supermarkets. If you don't have access to such a product (and don't have time for the 5-plus hours needed to make pho stock) 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 cardamon pod. To make slicing the raw beef top round paper-thin, freeze the meat for 15 minutes, slice thin then pound thinner with a meat mallet.
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 50 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
1 pound beef brisket
3 quarts beef stock
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. Simmeruntil 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.
Preparing stock for pho can be a bit involved. Or at least, it might seem that way compared to other stocks you've made.
In San Francisco chef Charles Phan's book, "Vietnamese Home Cooking" (Ten Speed Press, $35), he writes that the stocks "are hardly the sexiest, most exciting recipes in the book, (but) they are some of the most important."
Consider the flavor sources, from the bones to the spices. His recipe calls for blanching (not roasting — because, as he explains, most Vietnamese kitchens don't have ovens) bones before returning to the pot for a long slow simmer (5 hours) because. He suggests making the stock one day, the soup another.
"Don't overwater it (the stock). You can always add more water to it," Phan says. "And pay attention to the fat ratio. Without the fat, you're not going to taste the broth."
So, he adds, "You need to skim the fat, but you need to make sure that you add some back into each bowl so you don't (lose flavor).
"A flavorful broth is absolutely key to the success of that recipe."
Adapted from Charles Phan's "Vietnamese Home Cooking." He suggests discarding the solids — which includes oxtails and bones with marrow — once the stock is cooked. If you are a fan of either, we suggest nibbling some of the meat off the oxtail bones or dig the marrow out. Or use the oxtail meat for another meal, shredded into a marinara or barbecue sauce. And the marrow? Eat as is or spread on toast.
Prep: 45 minutes
Cook: 6 hours
Makes: About 9 cups broth
1 large yellow onion, unpeeled
1 piece (3 inches long) fresh ginger, unpeeled
2 pounds oxtails, in 2- to 3-inch pieces
2 pounds each: beef neck bones, shank bones, marrowbones
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 piece (3 inches long) Chinese cinnamon
1 whole star anise pod
1 whole clove
1 black cardamom pod, optional
1 Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place onion and ginger on rimmed baking sheet; roast until onion is soft, about 1 hour. Remove from oven; cool. Peel, then halve onion. Slice unpeeled ginger into 1/4-inch thick coins.
2 Meanwhile, prep the bones: To ensure a pot is large enough to blanch the bones without boiling over, put the oxtails, neck and shank bones in a large pot with enough water to cover by 1 inch. Remove bones. Heat water to a rolling boil. Add oxtails, neck bones and shanks back to pot. Return to a boil; boil 3 minutes. Drain pot's contents into a colander; rinse under cold running water.
3 Rinse pot; add rinsed bones and marrow bones to pot. Add onion, ginger, sugar, salt and 8 quarts fresh water to pot. Heat to a boil over high heat; skim off any foam. Lower heat to a simmer; simmer, skimming as needed to remove surface scum, 4 hours.
4 Add pepper, cinnamon, star anise, clove and cardamom. Continue simmering and skimming, 1 hour.
5 Remove from heat. Using a slotted spoon, discard large solids. Strain stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a large container. Allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.
6 The next day, skim off most of the surface fat (there will probably be a lot). Leave some fat to give the stock better flavor and mouthfeel. Store in airtight containers up to 3 days in the refrigerator or up to 3 months in the freezer.
Know your noodles
Noodles are an important ingredient in Asian dishes, from Japan's soba (buckwheat) to the rice noodles used in Thailand's pad thai. "Vietnamese Home Cooking" author Charles Phan offers a few tips on working with noodles, including the delicate rice noodles used in pho:
Cellophane: Also called glass noodles or bean thread noodles. Made from mung beans. Popular as a filling (think: spring rolls). To use, cover with hot water and soak 10 to 15 minutes.
Rice: Can be flat or round (called "bun"), thin, medium or wide. Use flat noodles in pho and stir-fries. Round ones (thinnest caled vermicelli) in spring rolls, soups. To use, boil dried versions in unsalted water until "tender yet still have some bite."
Egg noodles: Usually dried, sometimes fresh. Various sizes. Use in soups and stir fries. To use, boil, drain, rinse.
Charles Phan's tips for assembling pho:
- Warm large serving bowls
- Arrange garnishes and sauces at the table
- Have broth at a full boil
- Put cooked noodles in bowl
- Top with cooked meat
- Add a few slices of raw meat
- Ladle boiling hot broth over all
- Serve immediately
- Each person adds garnishes as desired