To me, there is nothing like a good bowl of Phở, with its rich, satisfying broth – infused with ginger, onion and spices, and warm rice noodles spiked with fresh herbs, lime and chilies. It’s my comfort food and I would eat it everyday if I could.
When I go home to Orange County, one of the first things I do is head out to what local Vietnamese call “Bolsa” (which we fobby folks pronounce Bone-sah) . There, with friends or family, I’ll get my phở fix at one of the many phở shops that line Bolsa Avenue in Westminster. Once seated at our table, we’ll order our phở in whatever way we like– with cooked brisket (thịt chín), tendon(gân), tripe (sách); with beef balls (bò viên); with cooked flank (thịt nạm) and thin, rare beef slices (thịt tái); or a combination of all the above in what’s known as Dặc Biệt.
Within a matter of minutes, our steaming bowls arrive at our table along with a plate of garnishes which features fresh herbs: thai basil (rau quế), coriander aka cilantro (rau ngò), saw-tooth herb aka culantro (rau ngò gai), bean sprouts, fresh chilies and lime wedges. Sipping my bowl of pho, I marvel at how simple and refined this dish is, for example, in the way the spices sort of echo the flavors of the fresh herbs — the coriander seed with the cilantro and the star anise and cinnamon with with the thai basil. It’s hard not to have your senses awaken to what is hot, sour, salty and sweet.
As we dig in, I become instantly aware that I’m in an Asian environment as I hear slurp, slurp sounds growing all around me. We finish our bowls like a Coca-Cola commercial with a resounding “ahhhhh.”
Here, in the Midwest, a good bowl of phở is more elusive than perhaps Britney Spears’ underwear. And believe me, I’ve searched —- for phở, that is!
Thus, my only choice is to make my own. In my opinion, it seems only fitting to make a large amount of phở broth so you can invite as many people over as you can and if there’s any broth left over, which there often is in my home, you can freeze it in 2-quart containers. These are perfect to make 2 big bowls of phở anytime later when you’re in a pinch.
The broth is the essence of this dish and so there’s no room for cheating or shortcuts, which means no instant phở paste, imitation phở seasoning or canned broth. Sorry, Sarah Moulton. Yes, making phở at home is laborious. Be prepared to spend a few hours on preparing the ingredients and many more hours to simmer the broth.
At our home, making phở was something usually reserved for the weekend. My mom would often make the broth a day before and assemble the rest of the ingredients the following day. In the end, your reward will be something that is not only delicious but also free of preservatives and artificial flavor enhancers (like MSG). Amen to that!
INGREDIENTS (8 servings)
- 1 large yellow onion
- 5 medium-large shallots
- 3-4 inch piece of fresh ginger
- 5 lbs. beef leg (shank) bones
- 1 lb. beef tendon
- 1 lb. beef brisket
- sachet of whole (not ground) spices:
- 1 cinnamon stick (regular or Vietnamese cassia)
- 5 star anise
- 5 cloves
- 1 tsp. coriander seed
- 1 tsp. fennel seed
- 1/2 tsp. cumin
- 1 Tbl. of salt
- 4 Tbl. of fish sauce
- small cube of rock sugar (or 1 Tbl. raw cane sugar)
- 7-8 quarts water
- 2 packages of phở rice noodles (dry or fresh)*
- 1 package beef balls (bò viên)
- 1lb. beef sirloin (thinly sliced) – to be served rare
- 1lb. beef tripe, thinly sliced (often labeled as “book tripe” ) – not to be confused with “honeycomb” tripe
- 1 medium yellow onion, sliced into thin “half -moons”
- fresh coriander, stems and leaves, roughly chopped
- green onion, both green and white part, thinly sliced
- fresh ground black pepper
- Vegetable garnish:
- Thai basil
- Bean Sprouts
- Lime wedges
- Thai “bird” chilies
- To begin, dry-roast the spices in a small skillet on medium heat. Watch carefully as the spices can scorch easily. As the spices toast, they’ll become fragrant and deeply hued.
- Remove from heat and tie them inside a cheesecloth sachet or large tea infuser. Set aside.
- Cut the onion and ginger lengthwise, leaving the skins attached.
- Place the onion, ginger and shallots on a baking sheet and broil them until their skins are nicely charred and blistered (usually 2-3 minutes). Remove from the oven and set aside.
- To make a clear broth, begin by parboiling the beef bones. Place the bones in a large stock pot. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. After 3-5 minutes, drain the bones and give them a good rinse and scrub to remove the most of the sediment.
- Next, add 7-8 quarts of cold water to the bones and bring to a boil. Skim off any of the scum that rises to the top. Add the beef tendon and beef brisket.
- Then, add the charred onion, ginger and shallots (skins attached) to the broth, along with the spice sachet. Add the salt, fish sauce and sugar. Bring down the heat to low and simmer for about 2 hours.
- At this point, the brisket will be ready. It should be cooked through and feel slightly springy to the touch. Remove the brisket from the pot and set it on a plate. Immediately tent with plastic wrap or foil.
- Continue to simmer the broth another 2-2.5 hours. At this point, the tendon should be ready. Remove it from the pot and place it next to the brisket and cover again. Taste the broth and adjust for seasoning (fish sauce/sugar).
- Once the tendon has rested for at least 15 minutes, slice the tendon and the brisket into thin slices (against the grain). You may also slice the beef balls in half. Rinse the tripe in hot water and thinly slice (It’s sold pre-cooked).
- Slice the raw beef sirloin into thin slices, at least 1/8 inch thin. **
- You’re now ready to assemble the bowls. Cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Divide the noodles among the bowls and layer the slices of cooked beef brisket, beef tendon, beef balls, beef tripe and raw beef sirloin slices. Top it all off with the yellow and green onion slices and fresh coriander.
- When you’re ready to serve the phở, bring the broth to rolling boil. Ladle the hot broth (3-4 ladles’ worth) into the prepared bowls and sprinkle fresh cracked black pepper on top. Serve with the herb and vegetable garnish and allow your guests to hand-tear into their bowl whatever amount they like.
*When using dry noodles, be sure to soak them in lukewarm water for about 10 minutes – not longer, as they can become soggy. Unlike regular pasta, you’ll want to boil individual servings of the noodles (they cook very quickly, usually in less than a minute). Place a handful of the noodles into a mesh sieve and immerse in the boiling water. When the noodles are “al dente,” lift the sieve, shaking to remove excess water and drop the noodles into the serving bowls.
**A tip for slicing the beef sirloin is to place it in the freezer for about an hour. This way, it’s easier to cut very thin slices of beef which will cook to rare (or med. rare) once the hot broth is ladled onto it.