Pho is a beautiful, incredibly delicious Vietnamese noodle soup.
For the uninitiated, it has a clear chicken- or beef-based broth, thinly sliced meats, and — depending on the region — a small mountain of fresh herbs. The flavorful broth takes two days to make, which is why homemade pho is reserved for only the most special occasions. For my family, pho is an event, and I wrote an essay on how, as refugees in the U.S., my family would make pho to transport them back to Vietnam, a country divided by war.
There are many different kinds of pho, and this recipe is for the kind I grew up with: southern/Saigon-style pho.
This variety is a little more elaborate than the northern style. It uses thin rice noodles, a more fish sauce–forward beef broth, several cuts of beef, and a generous amount of bean sprouts, basil, hoisin sauce, lime, and chiles. I learned most of my pho-making techniques by watching my grandmother for many, many years. But procuring details, like measurements, from my grandmother was impossible — she has a sixth sense for good flavor, and in her kitchen, everything is estimated, added, and reduced by taste.
Pho is all about the details, so for the specifics of this particular recipe, I turned to a close family friend.
She, like my grandmother, makes a legendary pho. It's an extremely time-consuming endeavor (which is why you should make as much as you can at once) — but so, so worth it. Here's how to make it.
1. First, assemble the ingredients.
For the broth:
For your bowl:
2. The night before you plan to eat, prepare the bones and oxtail for the broth.
If you're starting the broth immediately after going to the supermarket, leave the bones and oxtail out on the counter to dry (it will prevent a strong beef odor). Rinse both thoroughly under cold water.
Place the bones and oxtail in salted boiling water. You'll see scum float up to the top during this process. Once there is no more visible blood or impurities on the bones (3 to 4 minutes), transfer them to a bowl and discard the water. Rinse the bones again with cold water.
3. Meanwhile, "toast" the onions and ginger.
While the water is coming to a boil, work on the veggies. If you have a gas burner, place the onions and ginger around the base of your soup pot until all sides are charred.
My family swears that putting the onions and ginger in a toaster oven yields a completely different flavor — but if you don't have a gas burner, that's totally fine, too.
4. Remove the charred bits, or your broth will turn out black.
5. In a new pot, combine bones, oxtail, toasted onions, rock sugar, salt, and one soup spoon of fish sauce.
Add enough cold water to cover all the ingredients in the pot, then bring everything to a boil, uncovered, over high heat. Adding fish sauce to cold water prevents the overwhelming fish smell from filling your kitchen!
Let the water come to a roiling boil. Never close the lid!
Once it comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium low.
6. While you're waiting for the broth to come to a boil, poach the brisket.
7. Place the brisket and toasted ginger in the broth pot, turn heat to low, and let it simmer for 1.5 hours.
It may need two hours, depending on its size!
8. When the brisket is finished cooking, coat it in fish sauce, season with salt and pepper, and let it rest before putting it in the fridge.
You can determine whether or not the brisket is done by using chopsticks to punch the meat. It should be tough. If the chopsticks easily pierce the meat, it needs more time.
9. Toss all of the spices in a hot pan.
Add spices and toast, stirring often, until the spices are fragrant and lightly toasted, about a minute, then gather them into a mesh infuser ball thingy and drop it into your broth.
10. Skim as much fat from the top of the pot as you can.
This isn't so much a step as it is a good practice. I'm constantly tending to my pot, making sure the fat isn't clouding the broth.
11. Netflix and chill, while you let the broth simmer for a few hours. Continue adding salt to taste.
Simmer the broth for at least 2 hours and up to 4 hours (ideally more). Turn off the heat, remove the ginger and onions, and let the flavors ~work their magic~ overnight.
THE NEXT DAY...
12. One hour before serving, your broth should look like this (disgusting). Skim the fat off the top.
13. Prepare the flank steak.
This thinly sliced carpaccio-style beef is served rare with the noodle soup. Use a tender, fast-cooking cut like flank steak, skirt steak, or, if you have the cash to spare, filet mignon.
My aunt insists on hand-cutting each individual slice (machine-cut beef makes it dry, she says). After slicing, use the blunt side of your knife to tenderize it.
14. (Almost there!!) Presoak the rice noodles in cold water for at least 10 minutes before serving.
15. Assemble the toppings.
Make the bowls!
16. First, you need to soften the noodles.
You'll need a strainer with a deep basket and a long handle like this. Bring a pot of water to an almost-boil. It doesn't need to be bubbling.
Put a handful of presoaked noodles into the strainer, give the noodles a swirl, and remove as soon as they're soft or else they'll get mushy. It only takes about a minute or so, which is why I like to make noodles fresh for each bowl.
17. Next, layer the ingredients.
18. Add all the dressings and a healthy amount of hoisin and Sriracha sauce.
Finally, enjoy the result of your 12 HOURS OF LABOR with the people you love most!!!
Recipe by Nicole Nguyen
6 lbs beef bones, cut into small pieces (have the butcher do this for you)
2 lbs oxtail, cut in 2- to 3-inch pieces (have the butcher do this for you)
2 lbs beef brisket
2 lbs flank steak
2 cinnamon sticks
1 piece dried cardamom
2 pods star anise
2 Tbsp. cloves
2 tsp whole coriander seed
2 pieces dried tangerine skin (optional)
5 yellow onions
2 large pieces fresh ginger
2 pieces rock sugar
4 packages dried rice noodles (1 bag is enough for about 3-4 people)
1 bunch Thai basil
1 lb fresh bean sprouts
3 green chiles, sliced
The night before you plan to eat, make the broth. Rinse the bones and the oxtail thoroughly under cold water. Bring a pot of water to boil, add salt, and add the bones and oxtail. You should see scum float up to the water's surface. Once there is no more blood on the bones (3 to 4 minutes), transfer the bones and oxtail to a bowl and rinse again with cold water. Discard the water in the pot.
While you are "poaching" the bones and oxtail, toast the onions and ginger over a gas burner until they’re charred all over (you can use a metal cooling rack over the burner or place them at the base of the poaching pot). If you don't have a gas burner, toast the vegetables in a 400ºF toaster oven until charred, about 5 to 10 minutes. Once all sides are charred, remove the burned bits.
In a new tall soup pot, combine bones, oxtail, and onions, and add 2 pieces of rock sugar and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce. Add enough cold water to cover all the ingredients in the pot, then bring everything to a boil, uncovered, over high heat.
While you are waiting for the broth to boil, poach the brisket. Clean the pot you used to poach the bones and oxtail, then fill it two-thirds of the way with cold water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Add the brisket and boil for 2 minutes, then remove the brisket and discard the water. Place the brisket and toasted ginger in the broth pot and turn the heat to medium low. Simmer, uncovered, until the brisket is cooked through but still tough (you don’t want the meat to be falling apart), 1.5 to 2 hours. Remove the cooked brisket, season the meat with salt and pepper, and coat it with fish sauce on both sides. Set aside and let cool before refrigerating.
Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add spices and toast, stirring often, until the spices are fragrant and lightly toasted, about a minute. Collect the spices in a mesh ball infuser, or tie them in a piece of cheesecloth. Drop the spices into the broth.
Simmer the broth for at least 2 hours and up to 4 hours (the longer the better). While the broth simmers, skim as much fat from the top as you can. Turn off the heat and let the broth cool to room temperature, then let it sit, covered, in the fridge overnight.
One hour before serving, skim the congealed fat off the top of the broth, discard the fat, and remove the spices, then return the pot to medium heat and bring the broth to a simmer.
Meanwhile, prepare the flank steak. Thinly slice the meat and pound it with the blunt edge of the knife. Set aside (the meat is served raw).
Presoak the rice noodles in cold water for at least 10 minutes (and up to 1 hour), then drain.
Prepare the toppings by washing the bean sprouts and Thai basil, slicing the limes and chiles, chopping the green onion ends, and, for presentation, cutting the white parts of the green onion into thin, vertical strips. If time allows, I also like to add small pieces of cut ginger.
Take the cooked brisket from the previous night and cut into thin slices.
SERVING THE BOWLS
Fill a small pot with water and bring to an almost-boil. Put a handful of presoaked rice noodles in a handheld strainer with a deep basket. Place the strainer in the pot, give the noodles a swirl using chopsticks, and remove as soon as the noodles are soft (about 1 minute). Make a fresh batch of noodles for each bowl.
With the noodles as the base, assemble the bowl in this order: sliced cooked brisket on one side, and raw flank steak on the other. Then add chopped green onions, sliced green onions, and chopped ginger on top.
Pour the hot broth directly over the raw flank steak to cook the meat.
Finally, top off the the bowl with fresh bean sprouts, ripped pieces of basil, and a pea-sized amount of Sriracha and hoisin sauce (you can always add more to taste).