My first bowl was in Paris 30 years ago. It brought instant devotion. Hot steaming broth with wafts of ginger, anise and clove, slick rice noodles, slices of rare beef, and flanking the bowl was a plate of what is called "table salad" (sa lach dia in Vietnamese), a heaping platter of additions, like fresh herbs, bean sprouts, greens, lime and chiles—this is the essence of North Vietnam's Pho (pronounced "fuh") soup. Entire restaurants are built on this one dish and all its variations.
The allure of this soup depends entirely on a deep-flavored and intricately spiced broth which is cooked for hours. To shortcut the recipe, you have to use every trick you can conjure.
After many dead-ends, I owe a great debt to the work of Vietnamese chef and cookbook author, Mai Pham. She's been a guest on the show, and she brings a culturally informed yet supremely pragmatic approach to her country's food. She gave me the missing link to a fast broth—toasting the onions and spices before they go into the stock. I do it in 5 minutes on a piece of foil under the broiler.
You make this soup your own with what you choose to add to it from the table salad. I always tear in Thai basil leaves with squeezes of fresh lime. But you should try a little of everything. No two spoonfuls need be the same.
Cook to Cook: Notice that the thin-sliced beef goes into the bowl raw. The beef cooks in seconds under ladles of simmering broth. To slice meat extremely thin, freeze it for 20 to 30 minutes first. If Asian fresh herbs like perilla (aka shiso) and water mint are available, add them to the table salad.
Cheater's Asian Broth:
1 medium onion, thin sliced
4 large cloves garlic, thin sliced
2- to 3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thin sliced
6 whole cloves
1 star anise, bruised, or 1/2 teaspoon anise seed
Fresh-ground black pepper
4 cans low sodium chicken stock, or regular chicken broth
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce
6 to 8 ounces linguine-style rice noodles
6 to 8 ounces top round steak (chicken breast can be substituted), sliced extremely thin (see Cook to Cook)
10 branches fresh coriander
6 to 8 branches Thai, or other basil
2 serrano or jalapeno chiles, thin sliced
Generous handful bean sprouts
1 large lime, cut into wedges
1. Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler, and preheat. Double up a very large piece of heavy foil. Scatter on the foil the onion, garlic, ginger, cloves, anise, and 5 grinds of pepper. Broil for 5 minutes, turning the pieces once. You want the onion to have some toasted edges, and the spices should be fragrant. Scrape everything into a 6-quart pot. Be sure to get all the anise seed.
2. Add the broth, sugar, and fish sauce, bring to a gentle bubble, cover tightly, and simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Put the rice noodles in a large bowl, and cover them with very hot tap water. (To keep them hot, cover the bowl with a plate.) Soak the noodles for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are tender, but with a little more firmness than you want. Stir a few times. When ready, drain and rinse well with cold water. Divide the noodles between 2 large soup bowls.
4. As the broth simmers and noodles soak, arrange the table salad on a platter and set out the sauces. To serve, divide the beef between the soup bowls. Ladle the bubbling broth into the bowls. Top each serving with a few sprigs of the coriander and serve.
See also: Charles Phan's recipe for chicken pho.
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