"Proportions don't matter." –Mom
Yeah, she's wrong—I say that with certainty because I used her recommended amount of spices with an arbitrary nine cups of water and, although good, the flavor of the pho could have popped more against the intentional blandness of the rice noodles. I doubled the spices in the recipe below.
The dish itself isn't tricky to make once the proportions match, but boy is it time consuming—I suddenly understood why Momofuku and Ippudo charge $16 for a bowl of ramen. And like ramen, there are many renditions of pho. The most common, phở bò, uses beef broth as the base. Phở gà, made with chicken, came later for those who prefer a lighter flavor.
Some say the classic Vietnamese street dish originated with French pot-au-feu, when the Vietnamese lover of a French soldier attempted to make him the dish. Another theory states pho originated with Cantonese immigrants in the Northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi, derived from the well-loved beef noodle soup ngau yuk fun, using scraps of beef leftover from the butcher after serving the French. The latter may be less romantic, but it has my vote because:
1. We make ngau yuk fun at home and it IS very similar to pho—to the point where I confused the two soup dishes as a kid, like a lot.
2. Dad and his 13 siblings were part of the thriving Cantonese Chinese immigrant community in Northern Vietnam*, and Dad grew up with an uncle who made his fortune in the restaurant biz. I'm not saying we invented pho, but I'm also not saying that we weren't at the forefront of the dish's arrival.
Today I'm sharing Dad's version, learned from his school days or lack thereof (Dad skipped school to hang with the chefs of the restaurants his uncle owned). It's traditional Hanoi style, so it's a little different from what you would typically get in the States. And the condiments are EVERYTHING, so don't skimp.
*Fun tidbit, I'm actually a fake Phan—my last name is supposed to be Poon since I'm Chinese. When Dad immigrated to the U.S. he had to jot down a last name, and coming from Vietnam he was told to say Phan by the translator. My extended family has legally changed it since, but Dad was like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, so I continue to be Phan-tastic. I don't hate it.
Prep: 20 minutes Cook: 6 hours
INGREDIENTS (SERVES 2–3)
|1 1/2 lbs beef bone marrow||8 whole cardamom|
|3/4 lb oxtail||6 whole star anise|
|2 yellow onions||4 whole cloves|
|1 whole nutmeg||1 tsp black peppercorns|
|5 cinnamon sticks||2 lbs daikon|
|8 fennel seeds||1/2 bag of bánh phở noodles|
+ Cheesecloth or soaking bag for spices
|1/2 lb sirloin steak||bean sprouts to taste|
|1/2 lime||chopped chives to taste|
|2 stalks scallion||fried red onions to taste|
|4 stalks cilantro||sriracha to taste|
|Thai basil to taste||fish sauce to taste|
1. Combine spices in cheesecloth or soaking bag. Set aside.
2. Chop onions in half and char.
3. Place bone marrow, oxtail, spices, and onion in large soup pot. Combine with nine cups of water.
1. Turn on the burner and bring mixture to a boil, then let simmer for five hours, stirring occasionally.
2. Put on Netflix—you should be able to fit in either four Gilmore Girls episodes or eight Friends episodes.
3. On hour four, use a potato peeler on the daikon and then chop into two-inch-thick pieces.
4. Thinly slice sirloin steak. Set aside.
5. Chop scallion, cilantro, and chive. Set aside.
6. Slice your lime, wash the bean sprouts, and separate the Thai basil from the stem. Set aside.
7. At this point, place the daikon in the broth. Daikon will up your pho game by 100 points. Promise.
8. Prepare rice noodles by bringing a pot of water to boil and letting them simmer until soft (about 10 minutes).
Ah, the best part has arrived! It's now hour six. Take a large bowl and dump in desired noodle amount along with cilantro, scallions, chives, bean sprouts, and Thai basil. Place sliced sirloin steak in ladle and submerge into broth for about 30 seconds, then toss the meat in your bowl.
Now take that ladle and fill it with the beautiful broth, scooping daikon, onion, oxtail, and marrow along with it, and add it all to your bowl of noodles. The heat from the broth will continue to cook the steak* as you mix everything together. Then add fried red onions, fish sauce, and sriracha. Top off with a squeeze of lime. Mix well and enjoy!
*To the side of my pho, I like to keep a hoisin sauce/sriracha mixture for the beef.