Everyone needs to eat. It is a simple fact and has made many entrepreneurs successful in restaurant businesses. There are Vietnamese restaurants throughout the country. Even though this sophisticated cuisine remains largely unknown to the general public. Most popular dish is Pho and is a secret of success in this most popular, challenging, colorful, savory, and time-honored dishes.
Vietnamese cuisine, in general, reflects the influence of a multitude of cultures and histories of the country. China ruled over Vietnam for over 1000 years until A.D 900, but the Vietnamese retain their cooking culture rather than assimilate the Chinese style, leading to a distinctly different cuisine. Mongolian invasions of Vietnam during the thirteenth century also left a lasting imprint on variations of Vietnamese dishes. Then the French arrived, gaining control of the country in the 1887 incorporating Vietnam into the French empire (1887-1954). The Japanese would occupy Viet Nam during World War II.
Contacts with Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbors are Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand and all including Vietnam had been under the cultural influence of Indian, Indonesian, Dutch, and Portuguese. Vietnamese cuisine remains original and distinctive from others with its unique characteristics like using fish sauce (nuoc mam), or always having fresh herbs and vegetables to put in soups or as a side dish.
Pho, also called Pho Hanoi or Pho Bac, is one of the most popular northern specialty dishes. Pho is made with beef, chicken or seafood, but I prefer beef. I will share a recipe below. Pho is a typical comfort food that most people order when they go to Vietnamese restaurants. In fact, Pho is a street vendor’s food in Vietnam and can be eaten at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anytime in between with many different sizes. Hearty, fortified noodle soup is a wake-up call for early morning, with multiple textures of hot broth, fresh ingredients, tender beef slices, chewy rice noodles, and crunchy bean sprouts. These items demonstrate the uniqueness all in one bowl.
Beef Pho (can make with chicken also) is made with the spiced beef stock, poured over fresh rice noodles and paper-thin slices of raw beef in a bowl. It is hauntingly fragrant and lightly spicy with cinnamon, star anise, fresh ginger, fennel, and nutmeg. A side platter full of fresh basil, cilantro (long, saw-leaf herb), fresh mung bean sprouts, onions, chilies peppers, lime juice, get put together with all the other Pho ingredients at the table when it’s time to eat. These go on top and added while serving as accompaniment and garnish the soup as desired.
Better yet, this is a soup made to order, put together as you wish and hastily consumed with both hands. Let the eating begin, with chopsticks in one hand and a soup spoon in the other. The long noodles are lifted out releasing the steam, and it is proper to slurp, a natural reaction to eating this hot soup. The slurping helps to cool the noodles just enough to make it possible to swallow them. Together with the noodles, the pieces of meat or seafood are plucked from the broth and dipped into the Hoisin and Sriracha sauce. This sauce is served side by side in a small dipping bowl.
Homemade Pho is the best, but it requires a lot of time to prepare with a lot of ingredients. All the time and energy invested will result in tremendous amounts of flavorful. Techniques for cooking Pho may vary from chef to chef. It seems the authentic recipes are never written but taught inside the family and to the children by letting them help in the family kitchen, and this is how I learned. Giving a recipe is a very personal gesture of friendship and respect in the Vietnamese culture, and I hope you will enjoy trying it one day. Here is my recipe. It makes 4-6 servings.
To make spiced beef stock: Begin with 3 pounds of oxtails and or other beef bones and flank steak. I prefer to clean them first, then put them in a large stockpot, cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. After it has reached a bowl, drain off the water and proceed cooking the stock by covering Cover the bones with 10-14 cups of fresh water, add a little salt, and the list of ingredients below then bring to a boil again.
One big piece of fresh ginger root: sliced and crushed
One medium onion
One tablespoon salt
Five whole star anises
Two cinnamon sticks
Four whole cloves
Two whole nutmegs
One piece rock sugar or 1 tablespoon sugar
Two teaspoons fennel seeds
Add the crushed fresh gingers, onion, anise, cinnamon sticks, nutmegs, cloves, sugar to the pot. Put the fennels seeds in a tea ball and add to the stock.
When the broth comes to a boil the second time, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 2-3 hours, skimming occasionally. Then strain, and you have a good flavoring stock to use.
1 pound of Vietnamese flat rice noodle (fresh or dried is your choice)
1 pound beef, preferably the eye of round or beef rib-eye that you cut into paper-thin slices
Fresh mung bean sprouts
Sprigs of coriander (cilantro)
Thai basil leaves (not to be confused with sweet basil)
Chopped fresh chives or scallions
Fish sauce (nuoc mam)
Hot fresh chilis, thinly sliced
Chili or Sriracha sauce
Bring the Beef Stock to a boil while preparing the rice noodles.
To cook the rice noodles: In a large bowl, cover the rice noodles with water and soak until pliable about 30 minutes. Drain. Put a large handful of noodles (enough for one serving per bowl) in a strainer and dip in the boiling water, swirl noodles with chopsticks about 20 seconds until noodles are tender but firm (never overcook the noodles). Shake the noodles dry and put them into a soup bowl. Place raw beef slices on the top of noodles and ladle the boiling beef broth over the noodles and beef slices. Top with chopped scallions and cilantro.
Serve hot with accompaniments.
Pho has made most Vietnamese restaurants very successful, and you can find it on their menu as a chef’s specialty. This signature soup has enticed many cultures to try and enjoy one of the different foods offered in Asian countries and around the world.
Pho, not just for dinner anymore!