Pho

Author: Mike Orr
Contact: mso@oz.net
Date: 2004-04-26

Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) is a quick and easy meal if you use prepared broth paste rather than making your own. If you're looking for a yummy way to eat those green vegetables you avoid, this is it. The directions below are for one serving and use the fewest number of dishes possible; scale up if you're cooking for more. All ingredients can be found at a Chinatown grocery or Asian supermarket. I like to eat it with a cup of earl green tea (also called green earl gray).

Ingredients

Soup:

  • rice noodles (narrow vermicelli style, not the wide flat kind)
  • beef or pork cut into paper-thin strips (often called "cut for sukiyaki" or "cut for hot pot")
  • Vietnamese beef broth paste
  • mushrooms

Garnishes:

  • basil
  • cilantro
  • green onions (scallions)
  • bean sprouts
  • a lime
  • chili sauce
  • hoisin sauce

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, soak noodles in water for 30 minutes to soften them.
  2. While you're waiting, chop up the vegetables and put each in a separate serving/storage container. Cut the limes into quarters. Discard the stems of the cilantro and basil unless you like to eat them.
  3. When the noodles are ready, pour some of the water into a small pot. Add the mushrooms to the water, bring to a boil, add the meat, and stir in a teaspoon or two of beef broth paste. I use just enough water to cover the mushrooms and meat, to avoid making the soup watery. The boiling water will cook the meat immediately since it's cut so thin. The mushrooms taste better if they're cooked an extra minute or two.
  4. Drain the rice noodles add a small handful to the boiling water and stir for twenty seconds, then immediately remove the pot from the heat. You want to scald the noodles but not cook them so long they become soggy.
  5. Carefully pour the hot ingredients into a soup bowl. Add the garnishes and sauces just before serving so they stay crispy. For the best taste, don't forget the lime!

Notes

Pho in Vietnamese means "one's own bowl", so called because it's one of the few meals served individually rather than family style. Each person garnishes the soup himself/herself according to his/her own taste. Westerners normally eat pho for lunch or dinner, but in Vietnam it's traditionally a breakfast food. So feel free to eat it anytime and to experiment with other ingredients you like. For instance, the mushrooms were my addition because they go well with my beef broth. There are also regional variations in the traditional recipes, since Vietnam is a long skinny country with multiple climates (like California). The far north uses Chinese spices (being next door to China), while the far south has been more influenced by India (whose hot spices are refreshing in the hot climate). The version here is based on a Hanoi style.

You can presoak a whole bag of rice noodles and keep them drained in the refrigerator; that eliminates the one time-consuming step. If you also keep some precut vegetables handy along with meat and sauces, you can make a meal in five minutes. Great for when you're hungry but low on energy. And much more nutritious than Top Ramen! I don't know how long soaked noodles last before going bad, but they'll remain good as fresh for at least a few days.

The biggest factor in the taste is the choice of beef broth. My favorite broth says "Gia Vi Bun Bo He -- Spicy Beef Paste (Vietnamese Hue Style)" on the label. It's made by Lee brand of Bangkok, Thailand. The flavor is not quite like the pho you get in restaurants, but it has a hot-and-sour-soup flavor I prefer. For best nutrition, look for one without corn syrup (of course, this goes for all preprocessed foods). Don't use Western bullion; it's highly salted for Western tastes, and the taste conflicts with pho spices.

If you can't afford beef or you're afraid of mad cows, pork is a good alternative. You can even cook pork chops and dice them, although the flavor isn't as good as strips. (No, pork strips are not bacon! They look like beef strips.)

Bean sprouts start to go bad after a couple days, so eat them up quickly.

I'm hopeless with chopsticks, but a fork works just fine. The Vietnamese flat-bottom spoons, however, work significantly better than Western spoons for lapping up the last of the liquid and noodles. The spoons have high sides making it easier to scoop the noodles.

Rice noodles are made from rice that has been pulverized into a flour. One kind is pretty much the same as another, although I've found the wide flat noodles too doughy tasting for pho.

For chili sauce, the restaurants all seem to use "Sriracha HOT Chili Sauce -- Tuong Ot Sriracha" by Huy Fong Foods, Inc. of Rosemead, California. So that's what I use. I don't know if any other chili sauces are better.

Hoisin sauce looks like teriyaki but thicker. The one I use is "Hoisin Sauce -- Tuong An Pho" by Lee Kum Kee Foods, Inc, of City of Industry, California. However, the front of the label says "Lee Kum Kee: Hong Kong", so it may be an American subsidiary of a Chinese company. I got it mainly because it said pho on the label and doesn't contain corn syrup. It does have modified corn starch though unfortunately. You have to watch out for words like "modified", "hydrogenated", "trans-fatty"; they usually mean something unnatural and unhealthful. After all, if people got along without them for thousands of years, who needs them now?

Cost per serving

Item Quantity Price
rice noodles 1/3 package $0.23
beef strips 1/5 pound $0.80
beef broth 2 teaspoons $0.08
mushrooms 2 $0.30
basil 2 stalks $0.15
cilantro 1/5 bunch $0.05
green onions 1 stalk $0.07
bean sprouts 1/4 cup $0.10
lime 1/2 lime $0.17
chili sauce 1 tsp $0.03
hoisin sauce 1 tsp $0.01
water 3 cups $0.00
electricity 5 minutes of boiling $0.01
TOTAL   $2.00

The prices are for Hop Thanh (a small grocery in Seattle). Prices in an Asian supermarket (Uwajimaya) are slightly higher; prices in a chain supermarket (QFC) are significantly higher.