Yesterday my wife and I had friends over for dinner, both of whom had never had Phở (pronounced ‘fuh’ with an upwards inflection) in their entire lives. So it was a pleasure for me to make Phở for them; however, it’s a greater pleasure to have a bowl of Phở the next day – a bowl of Phở is always better the next day.
If you had to identify a meal that was quintessentially Vietnamese, it would be the humble bowl of Phở.
Phở originated in Northern Vietnam and traditionally was either created from a vegetarian broth or a broth made from chicken and pork. It was not until the French arrived in Vietnam that the pork was substituted for beef and we were blessed with this culinary dish as we know it today.
Today, you can find Phở anywhere in Vietnam: North to South, East to West, small towns and large cities, in supermarkets or in a nook or a cranny – it is ubiquitous.
Phở is a meal that one can partake in at any point in the day. In North America, we reserve it for lunch or dinner outings. However, in Vietnam, Phở can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner… or all three.
A good bowl of Phở rests on the quality of the broth – if you have skimped out on the quality of your ingredients, then your broth will suffer. If the broth is bad, no amount of meat or fixins’ will ever redeem the dish. I have had Phở so bad that the only reason I kept eating was because I was in a city which I was not familiar with the food scene.
Let’s get to the fun stuff already!
Phở consists of the noodles, the broth, the meat and the veggies and condiments.
In Vietnam, bánh Phở (the noodles), are made fresh daily – it is because of the fresh noodles that often a small, unassuming bowl of Phở at a street vendor can leave you feeling full for half of the day. There is something different about eating a fresh batch of noodles as opposed to reconstituted noodles from a package of dehydrated noodles. So the rule of thumb is, if you can get it fresh, do so – this also means, it comes at a higher cost.
If you’re in Calgary, Lucky’s supermarket and T&T supermarket now carry fresh noodles from a local producer. Because they are fresh noodles, their shelf life is much shorter than that of their dehydrated brethren.
In my household, I use dehydrated noodles simply because I can keep them on hand and make Phở whenever I want… which is at least once a week. Driving around in -30°C in the Calgary climate in the winter sucks and I avoid it as much as I can.
Bánh Phở is physically different than the other Vietnamese noodle: Bún, or better known as vermicelli. Whereas the bánh phở is a flat noodle of varying degrees of width made out of rice, the bún noodle can be made out of rice or beans and are traditionally round, almost cylindrical in some cases and are used for different dishes.
You can prepare the bánh phở by boiling it until it is cooked (not soggy but definitely not al dente). However, a neat trick my mom taught me was to soak the noodles all day and when you are ready to eat them, portion them out into bowls and microwave the noodles for 50 to 70 seconds (depending on the strength of your microwave) and you will have perfectly cooked bánh phở. I realize this is not conventional… but it works!
This is the trickiest part – and to be honest, I cannot give you a breakdown of the proportions of the ingredients and spices in this post as I did not take the time to properly measure out the ingredients and what not. A full recipe of my family’s Phở will have to wait until another day… maybe next week if I feel up to it.
The Phở broth is created by simmering a variety of ingredients such as chicken, beef stewing bones/ribs, beef shank, ox tail and spices in a pot of water for 3 to 6 hours until the desired flavour is attained. In the Phở pictured above, I used a stewing hen, beef shank and five hearty pieces of ox tail that had a good meat to bone ratio (it was on sale at Lucky’s and I could not say no to the butcher!). Ox tail is an expensive cut of meat in North America, ranging anywhere from $5/lb to as high as $10/lb – I use ox tail whenever I can because it naturally sweetens the broth without adding too much sugar.
Normally I turn the water to a raging boil and then reduce it to low-medium to achieve the right temperature to cook the meat. Yesterday was different. I decided to put all of the meat in and turned the pot to low-medium to begin with and had some surprising results!
Because of the slower nature of the boil, there was little scum that is developed as a result of the cooking of the fat and blood in the meats. The meats also were much more tender, particularly the beef shank which is a tougher cut of beef to begin with. A slower boil also meant that the spices and herbs would not be burned by the temperature of the water (yes, this can happen!).
In addition to the meat, add a chopped daikon into the broth to help keep the broth clear and add to its natural sweetness. I’ve had varying degrees of success with this because I often use chicken in my broth which ends up clouding the water anyways due to the nature of boiled chicken.
The spices, seasonings and herbs that are used in the broth are salt, rock sugar, and the six spices that make the Phở broth unique: star anise, coriander, fennel seed, whole cloves, whole black peppercorns, cinnamon and chinese cardamom. In most Vietnamese or Chinese supermarkets today, you can buy pre-bundled Phở spices instead of having to source out the individual ingredients. The proportions of the Phở spices is the tricky part, I will often use 8 star anise, 1 1/2 tablespoon of whole cloves, a tablespoon of peppercorns, a teaspoon of fennel seed, and two chinese cardamoms – these ingredients are either bundled into a coffee filter that is tied up with butcher twine or placed into a tea bag or into a spice ball. I also add two 8 inch cinnamon sticks into the broth as well. Leave the spices in through the entire cooking process as they will deepen the flavour of the broth.
Back in the day, the only meat that was used in Phở was chicken or pork. Today, we have a variety of cuts of meat to choose from, particularly from the all-purpose domesticated cow.
Again, I typically will use a combination of chicken and beef to add complexity to the Phở dish. Most Phở restaurants will use a base of beef bones (and marrow) along with beef brisket or shank. I prefer beef shanks because I like the texture of a properly cooked shank. Beef balls can be added to the broth right before meal time to be served fresh. Beef tendons are also used as is beef tripe to add texture to the dish; in most Vietnamese restaurants, the Phở Đặc Biệt (literally, the special Phở) consists of beef balls, tripe, tendons, brisket, and raw beef slices that are cooked by the broth as it is poured over the dish.
You have the freedom to mix and match whatever combination of beef or chicken to your Phở. Don’t forget the ox tail though, it is undoubtedly one of the most underused cuts of beef in North American cuisine today!
The Veggies & Condiments
The vegetables that are used in Phở are few, beyond the daikon (an Asian white radish) that is actually cooked in the broth, I typically use, sliced white onions, chopped green onions, bean sprouts and thai basil and perhaps Thai bird chilis as veggie fixings for the Phở.
As for sauces, I have, over the years, stopped adding hoisin sauce to my Phở in order to really learn to appreciate a good broth whenever I eat out. Most restaurants will encourage the usage of hoisin sauce to mask a poorly made broth – if you plan to eat out for Phở, if you can’t smell the Phở in the restaurant, then chances are the broth is not that good.
I use Rooster brand Sriracha sauce as a condiment as well as Vietnamese saté – a hot sauce indigenous to Vietnamese cuisine.
Vietnamese saté is created by boiling chopped garlic, chopped lemongrass, a bit of paprika, and chili flakes in a small pot of oil until the ingredients are cooked, the spiciness of the saté can be smelled in the air and the reddish colour of the spicy oil makes your mouth salivate with anticipation!
You can make saté mild or extremely spicy. This particular batch of saté my mother made for my wife and I is possibly the spiciest batch my mother has ever made. Ever.
The spiciness of the saté is regulated by the amount of garlic and chili flakes and paprika that you have in the mixture.
Enjoying A Good Bowl of Phở
There is a generally accepted principle when enjoying a good bowl of Phở: you need to slurp up the meal.
Slurping in Vietnamese culture is actually a form of endearment to the cook, it means you enjoy the meal – only in Western culture is slurping looked down upon! Imagine the confusion on my face when my friends in Junior High asked why I was such a poor eater and had poor etiquette while I ate lunch with them!
Also, a good bowl of Phở is therapeutic. It is an experience that quite literally takes the bad stuff on the inside of you and brings it to the outside – the combination of the heat of the temperature of the broth and the spiciness of the saté helps to bring out the toxins in your body through sweat. If you are eating a bowl of Phở and it’s not bringing out some of the sweat in your body, then it’s not a good bowl of Phở.
Next time I make Phở, I will chronicle the entire process, but I hope you enjoyed this post and come back for more!