People often ask where I go to eat Vietnamese food and which may be my favourite place. But I do not really have a favourite place – I just eat Beef Pho wherever I go and judge a place by the quality of that soup. I do the same at new Italian places – always try the Margarita Pizza, Spaghetti Alio/ Pomodoro/ Mare.
However, Pho is a strange beast. As a regular person who has eaten Pho all her life, I have noticed that even though you put the same ingredients in every time, the soup is different every time. So it is extremely difficult to judge a restaurant by the standard of its Pho (unless it is really bad- then its bad). I may have the best Pho in one place, but upon my return, it being completely bland, blank and empty.
Same goes, I may have made the best Pho- ever! Then do it again – fail miserably. My mother, the same and therefore, out of everything I have ever cooked, Pho has got to be one of those things you MUST do with love. It is something that will probably take a life time to master, if ever.
This is the same for every place I have eaten in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Saigon. (The worst and most inedible being in Seoul – where there is a huge craze for Pho – unfortunately they have no idea!) For the sake of self indulgence, I remember the best Pho I have ever eaten is in Nha Trang – Vietnam in 2007, Pho 2000- Saigon in 2001, 2 Vietnamese restaurant (China Town) & take away (First & Avenue A) in Manhattan in 1998, Vietnamese restaurant in Orange County, California, 1992. The other best bowls were made by my mother every now and again.
This goes to show that Pho is easy to make but not an easy dish to accomplish memorable status. And no, I have not had good Pho in Song Que – its just OK.
Tasting like a complex concoction of wonderful opposites-warm spices with refreshing herbs and lemon with a kick of fresh chillis. The balance of salt, sweet, sour, hot, spicy is what every cook of Pho is striving for. Pho consists of the most simplistic ingredients and very little of it and is then complimented by the flavour of garnishes and condiments that each person adds on at the table, making every bowl unique and individual to each palette.
Pho is a very distinctive Vietnamese dish but its origins can be argued to be French and Chinese influenced. Similarly, the French pot-au-feu uses oxtail and charred onion. The word ‘feu,’ meaning ‘fire.’ And the star anise is the staple of Chinese cuisine.
There are many versions of Pho, you can use different cuts of beef flank, fillet, sirloin, brisket, tripe, meatballs, chicken, seafood. I always go for the beef flank and rare steak. For Sunday lunch, we invited 8 guests for Pho. For something that needs so much love and attention, it’s a dish that cries to be enjoyed among a group of friends. Every seat around the table must be filled.
Ingredients – For 7.5 litre pot (Serves approx 12 bowls), master your pho with more or less of the following.
1 x Onion – Halved and charred
1 x Ginger – About 10 cm piece, halved and charred
10 x Star Anise
90g Rock Sugar
3 x Large pieces of Ox Tail
1.5 kg Beef Flank
1 x Beef Rib or Bones
Fish Sauce (3 crabs)
-Gather all the beef bits: ox tail, bones, flank – put in pot, fill with water and bring to boil
-Boil for about 10 minutes and let all the scum come to the top
-Wash all your beef bits again – thoroughly. This will give you a clearer broth.
-Wash the pot
-Put everything back in and fill with water. Bring to a gentle boil, getting rid of any excess scum then simmer.
-Meanwhile, get a griddle and place on high heat til you think its very hot. Do not add oil. Place the halved onion and ginger to char on both sides. Then add to the broth.
-Add in the rest of the ingredients to the broth, keep on a simmer for about an hour with lid on. Season with salt as you go along, tasting all the time. If the star anise is too strong, take some out. If you need more sweetness add more rock sugar. If there is too much fat floating on top – remove this as well – however, in Vietnam, people ask for the fatty substance as an extra it really adds to the flavour but you do not want it to be greasy.
-Take out the beef flank after an hour or so. When it cools down, slice it thinly and leave on side in a closed container until you are ready to use it. Leave the bones and ox tail to simmer for at least 2 hours, all day long if you can (or leave over night)
-Before you are ready to serve, season with some fish sauce – unless you want quite a stinky house – don’t do it while you have been cooking the broth for hours. Taste it! Fish sauce really compliments Pho, so make sure you do not over salt because you will need to add this at the end – and use good quality Fish Sauce – (Label with 3 Crabs – it’s the most expensive one – you don’t want to ruin the pot of fire that you have given lots of love to).
NB: PLEASE DO NOT ATTEMPT TO USE SOY SAUCE or ADD IT AS GARNISH – many Vietnamese restaurants do not even tell their customers that you should NOT use soy sauce in Pho – it’ll ruin the taste – criminal!)
Secret Ingredient: If you do not have time to slow cook the above over a course of the day, you can use PHO stock cubes to enhance the flavour. Or even if you do have time, put one in anyway, it’s a really good stock cube. Alsmost every Vietnamese Supermarket has it. I had been asking around about these cubes – (even Song Que – and my family in Vietnam) if they use it in Pho. Answer is: “Of course! You must!”
-Fresh Pho flat noodles (one pack serves 2 or 3 people/ you can buy fresh ones in Vietnamese Supermarkets dotted around East London) (or dry noodles) – put in microwave or blanch in boiling water for a couple of seconds before placing into bowls.
-Place the beef flank that you have already sliced and then raw beef fillet/ sirloin/ rump steak – also sliced thinly
-Sprinkle a generous amount of finely chopped spring onions and finely sliced red or white onion and finely chopped coriander.
-When ready to serve, bring broth to a boiling pot. Almost have it raging! Then pour onto your perfectly placed bowl. The boiling broth cooks the raw steak pieces and is perfectly tender and medium rare.
GARNISH TO BE PLACED AT TABLE (All optional. You can use all or some except *is a must, use at least one of the herbs)
*1 x per person Lemon/ Lime wedge –
Fresh Sliced Chillis
Hoi Sin Sauce
Pho is great for breakfast, lunch, dinner or midnight snack. You can freeze your stock and have it as often as you like. I might even put some in my flask and have throughout the day as a drink at work with my Vietnamese Ham sandwich.
There are many other ingredients you can add to Pho such as cinnamon, cardamon, coriander seeds but this will reflect the different variations that you can get all over Vietnam, Northern, Central, Southern etc. My version is a simple Southern variety. As that is where I am from, it’ll be my favourite.
Dinner was successful, everybody seemed to have loved it, but I couldn’t help but be a little disapointed that there was something missing in the body of the broth. Perhaps it just needed to be cooked for longer and more bones needed to be involved. And why did my broth turn a brown colour? Ah well – back to the drawing board.
Every pot of Pho is different from the next but the best one is totally unforgettable.