Phở (properly pronounced fuh – rhymes with duh) is the food most associated with Vietnam. On Tully Road in San Jose, CA (the heart of Little Vietnam) there are literally hundreds of pho restaurants to choose from, ranging from occasionally sublime to sometimes horrifying.
While I love pho, getting a proper bowl of it nowadays isn’t that easy. It involves a long several hour reduction of the stock, charring a number of ingredients over open flame and then skillfully layering the seasoning flavors of warm spices and above all avoiding the dreaded MSG used in most restaurant soups.
A properly made pho is a thing of wonder – I personally prefer the South Vietnamese style that is typically served in this country with herbs and lots of additions to the soup / noodle mix. North Vietnamese pho is all about the stock and eschews the additions.
FYI – The general theory held by most Vietnamese culinary experts is that the word “pho” is a corruption of the French “feu” or “fire.” Pho could be a Vietnamese adaptation of the French soup “pot au feu” or French beef stew, which the French brought to Vietnam when they came to rule the country.
“Pot au feu” literally means “pot on the fire,” signifying the long hours required to create the soup. Just like with pho, beef bones are used to make the broth of the pot au feu.
Another similarity that pot au feu shares with pho is the fact that ginger and onions are also roasted in an open flame before they are added to flavor the broth.
So – regardless of origin, please enjoy my version of this delicious Vietnamese dish. Note that my recipe uses one highly unorthodox ingredient. I use a Chinese roast duck to flavor the stock in addition to beef because to my taste, it really adds to the richness of the broth. You can easily omit it and increase the beef accordingly for a truly authentic pho.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
2 ½ pounds beef shank, cut into 2 pieces
1 ½ pounds beef short ribs (flanken cut)
1 Chinese roast duck, cut Chinese-style into 18 pieces – optional. For a traditional broth, increase beef shank and short ribs by 1 ½ pounds each
1 (3-inch) piece ginger, cut in half lengthwise and lightly bruised with the flat side of a knife, lightly charred on the burner
2 yellow onions, peeled and heavily charred on the burner
10 garlic cloves, peeled and charred on the burner
Several good splashes of Shaoxing wine (or use dry sherry)
½ cup fish sauce (3 Crabs brand preferred)
3 ounces Chinese Golden rock sugar (preferred), or 3 tablespoons sugar
4 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan
8 cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, lightly toasted in a dry pan
2 black cardamom, pod removed and lightly toasted in a dry pan
2 teaspoons coriander seed, lightly toasted in a dry pan
⅓ of a 1.5 ounce tub of More Than Gourmet Classic French demiglace – buy it here
½ pound thin flat rice noodles, soaked, cooked and drained
1 pound beef sirloin, partially frozen, then sliced paper-thin across the grain
Thinly sliced red Fresno chiles
Minced flowering buds of garlic chives
Bean sprouts, tipped and tailed
In a large stockpot, bring 1 gallon water to a boil. Place the short ribs and beef shank in a second pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil vigorously for 15 minutes – add the duck and its juices at the 10 minute mark (if using). Using tongs, carefully transfer the bones and beef to the first pot of boiling water. Discard the water in which the meat cooked (this cleans the bones and meat and reduces the impurities that can cloud the broth).
When the water returns to a boil, add the shaoxing and reduce the heat to a simmer. Skim the surface often to remove any foam and fat.
Add the charred garlic, ginger and onions and sugar at the 30 minute mark.
When the broth has been simmering for 1 1/2 hours, add the spices, fish sauce and demi-glace.
Continue simmering broth for a total of 4 hours, topping up with water as necessary. Strain broth through a fine mesh strainer. You should end up with about 4 quarts broth. Dilute with water or reduce as necessary to reach 4 quarts. Keep hot.
Carefully skim fat off of surface of broth and discard.
Season broth to taste with additional fish sauce, salt, and/or sugar. It should be strongly seasoned.
To serve, place the cooked noodles in preheated bowls. (If the noodles are not hot, reheat them in a microwave or dip them briefly in boiling water to prevent them cooling down the soup.) Place a few slices of the beef on the noodles. Bring the broth to a rolling boil; ladle about 2 to 3 cups into each bowl. The broth will cook the raw beef instantly. Add whatever garnishes you desire and enjoy!