Hi! It’s been a while! Hope everyone is doing well. Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk about pho.
Vietnamese cooking and recipe has been mostly an oral tradition — and actually, part of the reason I started this blog was in hopes that it would become a repository for family recipes that I can add to at leisure. Because recipe-sharing is mostly oral, there’s not really a definitive “pho recipe” in my family. Everyone has their own little quirks and adamant beliefs when making their own pot for the family. It’s important to know this because this recipe (and other recipes you may stumble across) is not gospel so if something seems a little off to your palate, feel free to adapt and adjust.
Here in this post, though, I will give some notes of things to look/taste for. This recipe mixes elements from my mom’s my aunt’s respective methods of making pho, while also bringing in some of my own preferences.
So here in Seattle, which has a solid Vietnamese population but isn’t the kind of Vietnamese hotspot that San Jose is, our pho shops do a really solid job of putting out good quality soups. I’ve eaten pho a number of times in Vietnam, and I think I can say that Vietnamese American renditions tend to be equally as good if not sometimes better. I think part of that can be attributed to the quality of beef (and the fact that it’s relatively plentiful here) — and also the fact that pho is the absolute most well-known bit of Vietnamese cuisine. Everyone eats pho nowadays, so I think because of the overwhelming popularity of it, Vietnamese Americans have more of a stake in doing it right, in terms of authenticity.
For this reason, I wanted to put out a recipe that is a little different from what you’d get in a restaurant. I would call this soup stock full-bodied, which might be a code word for fatty. And it is fatty! There’s a lot of marrow fat that renders out from the beef bones during the long simmering processes and many recipes (and many Vietnamese restaurants) tend to skim all of the fat out. I skim about 80 percent of the fat out, but leave a little in on purpose to give the stock a little something-something extra. And this used to be the way that my mom made pho and how my family ate pho for years and years.
(I say used to because in recent years as my parents get older, they have gradually adapted their recipes to be healthier and lighter, often at the expense of flavor. Haha.)
This is Southern (Saigon)-style pho, which is like, the daughter of Northern-style pho. The daughter is far more pimped out and decorated than her mom. Both kinds are great, but I have a particular affinity and loyalty to the Southern-style because it’s where my family’s homebase in Vietnam is.
I don’t strain my stock, so there are a lot of “bits” floating in the soup, which I think could be a little like, “Whhaaat?” to people used to the crystal clear soup stock that you get at restaurants. This pho stock recipe is not delicate. It’s not subtle.
It’s salty, fatty, thick, and there are textures in there. Check out the little pot of pho stock below, which has meatballs and also softened cartilage, tendon, and marrow fat floating in it:
You’ll also notice that there is straight up some raw beef slices in the bowl. These slices would get gently cooked when the boiling hot soup stock gets poured over the bowl — like fondue. This is also how restaurants cook these meat slices, I think, but maybe people don’t notice because the beef is brown and cooked by the time it arrives at the table?
A note on garnishes and veggies:
Vietnamese tend to add more veggies and herbs than Americans, so I feel like the garnish plate that you get in restaurants is sometimes paltry because these restaurants have adapted to American eating tendencies. But at restaurants, I generally pick off all the herbs and all the sprouts and they all go into my bowl. In my photo up there, it’s not a great representation of the amount of sprouts and herbs go into my bowl because I was trying to keep this stuff photogenic, duh. In real life, it’s piles and piles (and in fact, off camera, there was a bundle of mint, basil, and sprouts just chilling in a corner, waiting in the wings for after the photoshoot — when I would eat them.)
So I’d encourage people to put in more greenery and more sprouts into the bowl. Vietnamese food is very much a near-equal balance of cooked food paired with raw vegetables and herbs. The fresh green zip of the herbs and the watery crunch of the bean sprouts will also help cut the thickness of this fatty stock.
Core garnishes include Thai basil, mint, sawtooth herb (ngò gai), bean sprouts, sliced onion, green onions, and cilantro. With the exception of the sawtooth herb (which can be hard to find, even in Asian grocery stores) I wouldn’t skip out any of these herbs. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, cilantro-phobes! ;D)
Hoisin and the Rooster brand of sriracha are pretty much staples. Fun fact: The Rooster brand of sriracha is much better in the States than the stuff available in Vietnam, so count yourself lucky. Sometimes people add chilies or jalapenos to kick up the heat and you’re welcome to do that. I just wouldn’t overdo it on the hoisin and sriracha. I think the hardest thing for me when I eat pho with non-Vietnamese is to watch how much hoisin and sriracha people dump into their bowls. You’ll see that it takes a long-ass time to make the soup stock. It’s kind of a crime to kill all that hard work by dumping in a crapton of hoisin sauce into the soup.
People also squeeze a wedge of lime into their pho, which I have no problem with. I don’t do that, though, because I don’t like that overly sour hit of acid. But to each their own on that one! It is traditional to squeeze lime, so you’re good there.
See all my meat and fat bits floating in the soup? These are the bits that fell off my bones. Yum!
There’s gonna be a hard part in the recipe that calls on you to season to taste. It can be hard if you haven’t been mainlining this stuff your entire life. Broadly, pho stock should be saltier than you think it ought to be, because once the noodles and fistful of garnishes go in, they will dilute the entire bowl and it may come off bland as a result. To be very safe, it’s not a bad idea to season to what you think is good — and then maybe make yourself a teeny, itty-bitty bowl with a bit of everything and taste it that way to see if it’s bland or if it’s good to go. Then you can adjust the big pot accordingly. And then commit it to memory, because that will be what you’ll be hitting the subsequent times you make pho.
- 5 lbs (or more) of beef marrow and knuckle bones
- 4-inch nub of ginger
- 1 large yellow onion (or 2 smaller ones)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 pound of inexpensive beef cut (such as round). This should be inexpensive because you will end up throwing it in the garbage
- 2 tablespoons of sea salt
- ¼ cup of fish sauce
- 1-2 inch chunk of yellow rock sugar
- 6 star anise pods, broken up with your fingers
- 6 whole cloves
- (optional) 4 allspice berries
- (optional) 1 black cardamom pod
- 4-inch cinnamon stick
- 16 oz beef flank steak or any flavorful cut with good marbling, thinly sliced
- (Optional) 16 oz Vietnamese meatballs, labeled bo vien in Asian markets, frozen aisle, cut in half or quartered
- (Optional) Beef tripe (cook briefly until tenderness. Excessive cooking will make it rubbery)
- (Optional) Beef tendon (let it simmer in the stock until desired softness is achieved)
- Bundle of cilantro, chopped
- 2 bundles of green onions, thinly sliced across the grain
- Bundle of Thai basil
- Bundle of mint
- (Optional) bundle of sawtooth herb
- Package (16 oz or more) of mung bean sprouts
- 2 packages of pho noodles, your choice, dry or fresh, wide or skinny
- Onion, red or yellow, thinly sliced
- Lime wedges
- Hoisin sauce
- Sriracha hot sauce (Rooster brand is the best)
- In the evening on the first day, take all of your thawed/refrigerated bones and put them into a stock pot that is about 20 quarts or bigger. Fill with water to cover the bones.
- Bring to a boil and let it boil for 10-15 minutes vigorously, letting the impurities and protein-y bits leech out.
- Dump out/discard the hot water and drain the bones. Wash off more of the fluffy brown impurities with water so that the bones are all clean. Also rinse out the stockpot and wipe off the bits stuck to the pot with a napkin.
- Replace bones back into the stockpot. Refill with water. In a 20 quart pot, I fill it up ⅔rd of the way. In a 16 quart pot, I fill it up ¾ths of the way. This is pretty forgiving, so just fill it up enough so that you get a lot of stock, but not too much where liquid would slosh out if you jostled the thing.
- Put the stove on low to medium low and let the pot come up to simmer, covered with a lid. You should see little glimmers of bubbles every now and then, but it should never boil (this is how you keep your stock clear and uncloudy.)
- Let this go overnight, if you feel comfortable with letting the stove go while you're sleeping (I AM!). If not, maybe adjust the timing so all of this simmering happens during awake hours. You can probably get away with letting it simmer for as little as four hours. You can let it go for up to 12 hours or more, if you needed to.
- Soak your inexpensive beef cut in cold water for an hour or two, to pull some of the blood out (this is so the stock doesn't get too deeply colored by the blood protein)
- Peel the skin off the onion, cut ginger lengthwise in half, and char both along with garlic cloves under the broiler, turning over so they are blackened. Pop the ginger and the onion right into the simmering pho stock. Go fetch the onion and ginger bits and taken them out of the stock after about FOUR HOURS OR SO, before the onion gets too mushy and disintegrates into the stock.
- Lightly toast the spices in a pan until aromatic and brown. Put the spices in a loose left tea strainer or a cheesecloth along with garlic, and float the spice bundle in the stock. Maybe tie the cheesecloth or hook the strainer onto the side of the pot so that the bag doesn't sink to the bottom. You want to be able to easily fetch it. Take this spice bundle out AFTER TWO HOURS OR SO. It doesn't need to stay in there very long.
- Take the inexpensive beef cut and pop it into the simmering stock pot for the next FOUR HOURS OR SO. After that, the beef will have given up all its flavor and will be pretty bland. You can brainstorm some other thing to do with it, but my aunt really says to just chuck it in the garbage. It's a sacrificial piece of meat and it sweetens the stock.
- Toward the end of the simmering time (4 hours after putting in the onions and ginger), the house should be smelling amazing. This is when I add in the salt, fish sauce, and rock sugar, stirring and giving the sugar about 10 minutes or so to dissolve fully. Then, start tasting the stock and adjust the seasoning. Remember, it should be a touch or two saltier than you would like if it just were sipping soup. If you like your pho sweeter, it's okay to add a little more yellow rock sugar. If your stock tastes a little flat to you, try uncovering the pot and letting it continue to simmer and evaporate. Maybe the flavor just needs to concentrate.
- If you find you get bored during this whole process, pass the time by skimming off 80 percent of the beef fat that floats to the top. There will be SO MUCH FAT. And I end up spooning some into little jars that I keep in the fridge for another recipe. I'd still leave a layer in the stock pot though, for flavor.
- After 4 hours on day 2, or some other amount of time (remember, this is pretty forgiving), go ahead and take out everything --- the bones, the spices, the sacrificial meat, etc. So that all you have is just stock and the globs of beefy fatty goodness that have fallen off the bone.
- Soak the pho noodles overnight in water so they can rehydrate and soften. Keep them in water. This will make blanching them really easy and fast. (Though to be honest, I usually end up just zap my noodles in the microwave for a minute and call it good.)
- After everything is done, I let my stock cool enough so that it's not going to kill everything in my fridge, I cover it, and then I store it in the refrigerator as we eat pho over the next few days.
- The soaking noodles also get a place in the fridge
- I wash herbs and sprouts, dry them, and leave them on stems, and store them in containers or plastic baggies in the fridge. It's good to keep the sprouts separate from the herbs because sprouts' shelf live is shorter.
- I put all of my precut fresh ingredients in their own container for ease.
- (see the video at the end of this post)
- Ladle some stock into a small pan and bring to a boil. Throw in some meatball halves. They are already cooked. They just need to be warmed up. One pho bowl serving is about three ladles.
- Quickly blanch or microwave a handful of noodles so that they are soft but not mushy.
- Lay raw slices of flank steak over the noodles, careful to spread it out evenly so it will get cooked evenly.
- Top with a generous sprinkle of green onion and cilantro.
- Top with a scattering of raw onion slices.
- Top with other meat bits, if you prepared them.
- Pour boiling stock into the noodle bowl, covering all of the exposed raw beef. It should cook before your eyes.
- Before digging in, top with bean sprouts and fresh herbs, picked off the stem and roughly torn in half by hand. Squirt in some hoisin and hot sauce. Squeeze in some lime.
Here’s a video I made of how a bowl gets composed. This isn’t gospel though. The only real key here is making sure the raw beef gets cooked. Otherwise you might get an upset tummy. But it would be worth it, wouldn’t it?