‘A dish must be popular if you can find whole restaurants devoted to it in every corner of the world’. says Brian Yarvin in his book A World of Noodles. ‘Pho, Vietnamese beef noodle soup, meets this criteria with ease. It heads the menu in Paris, Virginia Beach, and Hong Kong too. In its home country, it’s everywhere; people begin eating it at the crack of dawn. Does the name come from the French pot-au-feu? Both dishes require long simmering. Or maybe the Cantonese word for rice noodles, rendered and pronounced as fun in English and something a bit closer to pho in its native language? Either way, it’s the dish that put Vietnamese food on the map’.
Makes 4 servings
1 piece fresh ginger, 3 inches long
2 large onions, peeled and cut in half
2 and 1⁄2 pounds oxtail cut into 1- to 2-inch slices
2 and 1⁄2 pounds beef soup bones in large chunks
1⁄4 cup Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
10 whole star anise
6 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
4 bay leaves
Cheesecloth and string for simmering the spices
Chopped cooked beef picked from the bones (optional)
1 tablespoon salt
1⁄4 pound thinly sliced sirloin beef
1⁄2 cup thinly sliced red onion
2 tablespoons sliced scallions
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (coriander)
2 cups fresh mung bean sprouts
2 tablespoons thinly sliced hot chilies
2 tablespoons fresh Asian basil leaves
2 lime wedges
4 ounces dried fine rice stick noodles, soaked, rinsed, and drained
1. In an oven preheated to 425 degrees, roast the ginger and onion until onion browns at the edges, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
2. Put the oxtail and beef bones in a large pot and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat. Let it boil for 1 minute, turn the heat off, remove the oxtail and bones, and discard the water. This step removes impurities and gives a cleaner stock. Don’t skip it.
3. Return the oxtail and beef bones to pot and add 5 quarts water. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat until the pot comes to a simmer.
4. After the liquid simmers for a few minutes, you’ll start to see foam and scum form on the surface. This has to be skimmed off. Let the meat simmer covered for 1 hour and skim as necessary. You will probably need to skim 5 or 6 times. Don’t forget this step.
5. Mix in the roasted ginger and onions, fish sauce, and sugar and let the pot simmer for 30 more minutes, continuing to skim if necessary.
6. Tie the star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, fennel, and bay leaves together in a bag made from the cheesecloth and add it to the simmering mixture. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally and skimming as needed, for two more hours. When the broth is cooked, there’ll be a combination of strong beef and spice flavors. If you’re a fan, you’ll recognize it as the flavor of pho when you taste it.
7. After 4 total hours of simmering, strain the liquid and remove the solids. For a more intense flavour, pick the meat off the bones and add the chopped meat back into the broth before discarding the bones. Taste. If the broth is too strong, dilute with water, 1 cup at a time, until it’s right. If it’s too mild, simmer uncovered over low heat and taste every 20 minutes or so until it’s strong enough for your tastes. Let cool. You should have about 12 cups of broth. If you’re making the broth and soup on separate days, stop here. The broth can be stored in the refrigerator for several days. It can also be frozen. Otherwise, it’s time to put the dish together.
8. Each serving of soup is individually assembled in the bowl it’s eaten out of. If it’s not already warm, heat up the broth. You’ll need 3 cups per serving.
9. While that’s happening, put one quarter of the beef, onion, scallion, and cilantro in each serving bowl along with one quarter of the soaked noodles.
10. Pour the hot broth over the noodle mixture. The heat will quickly cook the beef, onion, scallion, and cilantro.
11. Serve right away with a side dish of sprouts, chillies, basil, and lime wedges. Most serious pho eaters will squeeze the lime over the soup and mix in the sprouts, basil, and chilli as they eat.