Pho is a Vietnamese rice noodle soup made with beef stock simmered for hours with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, onion and ginger. It is served with sliced raw beef, garnished with fresh Asian herbs, and finished off with a squeeze of lime.
While I was in Scotland visiting Scotch’s parents, my father-in-law (FIL) wanted to learn more about Chinese and Vietnamese cooking and was very keen on learning how to make Pho, the Vietnamese rice noodle soup – that he had read about in my recent post on my mom’s Vietnamese kitchen.
Making Pho in Dubai often involves driving to a few supermarkets to source all the ingredients. Usually one place for the beef bones (Carrefour or LuLu’s), another place for the noodles (Geant or the Korean market in Barsha) and one last place for the Thai basil (Sunflower market in Karama) although the last two years I have been growing my own Thai basil.
If I had ever complained about the challenges of finding Pho ingredients in Dubai, I take it all back after experiencing what happened in Dunbar, Scotland, the beautiful sea-side town where the my in-laws live. The birthplace of conservationist John Muir, Dunbar is also known as “Sunny Dunny” because it is the sunniest town in the UK.
Sourcing Ingredients in Dunbar, Scotland
We commenced Operation Pho Noodle Soup one day before my FIL and I were to serve the Pho. We drove to the butcher shop in the next township, North Berwick, which Scotch described to me as “two houses bigger than Dunbar.”
I find most small towns in Scotland to be very charming and North Berwick was no exception. We meandered in and out of tiny shops, window browsing through displays of country furniture, specialty toys, and sea-inspired artwork.
By the time we arrived at the butcher shop, we were so focused on the current night’s dinner of pan-fried sirloin and rib-eye steaks that we left the shop with nothing but steaks and forgot about buying beef bones for the Pho Stock!
We went back to the butcher’s and were were given a few massive chunks of beef bones FOR FREE! But they were too big for the butcher to cut into small pieces so this is what happened:
My brain must have been really clouded by jet lag because as we were driving away from the butcher shop, I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten the braising beef for the Pho stock was well as the beef carpaccio for the finished soup.
Whoops x 1.
At a Tesco supermarket we did not manage to find any braising meat nor thinly sliced steak but did manage to get bean sprouts, limes, cilantro, and scallions. Asian basil was, unfortunately, nowhere to be found.
FIL said we could probably get some Asian Basil in Edinburgh (a rhetorical statement as none of us had any intention of making the hour-long drive there).
It wasn’t until we got home that I finally decided that sleep deprivation (I was functioning on one hour of sleep in the last 36 hours) was really wreaking havoc on my brain because I remembered yet another ingredient I had forgotten to pick up at the store – RICE NOODLES!
Whoops x 2.
The next day, while the beef bones and spices were simmering in the stock pot, FIL and I drove to an Asda supermarket in search of rice noodles, hoisin sauce (which I’d also forgoten to pick up the day before), fillet steak, and fish sauce.
We didn’t have much of a selection at Asda so we picked up what we could find – Blue Dragon Fish Sauce, a Hoisin stir-fry sauce, and “Thai Style Ribbon Noodles” (which I assume is the English supermarket translation of “Pad Thai”) to substitute for the Pho noodles.
These noodles were pre-cooked and vacuum-packed but had a slick oily coating on them which I rinsed away with hot boiling water.
We didn’t find any pre-sliced beef (like carparccio) so we bought fillet steak to slice up ourselves which is often what my mom does anyway. I put them in the freezer to harden a little and facilitate slicing but I forgot about them in the freezer and they ended up frozen.
Whoops x 3.
FIL put them in the microwave to defrost which softened the too much but he did a great job at slicing them as thin as he could.
Making the Stock and Assembling the Pho
I ended up simmering the bones for 4 hours because I kept feeling that the stock was too light in flavor – it needed to be stronger.
My recipe called for 1/4 cup fish sauce. I tasted the Blue Dragon one we bought at Asda and it was rather bland but very salty. So I minimized the amount of salt I used in the broth and had to triple the amount of fish sauce before I felt that the taste was anywhere close to perfect.
One thing I learned from my mom is that when using soy sauce or fish sauce which are both salty, sugar must be added to balance out the flavors. I ended up using 3-4 tablespoons of sugar before I felt that it tasted properly balanced.
Cilantro, bean sprouts, scallions, raw thinly sliced onions, red chillis, and limes were used for the garnish. Again, I couldn’t find Asian basil but that is typically added to Pho as well.
The pre-cooked noodles were placed at the bottom of the bowl.
Next I layered the beef (it is usually placed last in the bowl but I was worried it wouldn’t be cooked enough being thicker than usual), then the remaining garnish except for the limes.
Hot beef stock was then ladled into each bowl.
Because all the ingredients are placed raw in the bowl, the stock has to be very hot to be able to quickly cook the meat (and blanch the veg and the garnish so that they retain their crunchy texture with a nice half-cooked half-raw flavor).
Finally, an important squeeze of lime is added at the very end.
I was pleased with the final result and Scotch said that the taste was close to what it was supposed to be given what I had to work with. It took him years before he appreciated the subtleties of Vietnamese cooking and Chinese soups (home-made versions, not the restaurant stuff) which he at first found to be bland and boring.
He grew up on heavy cream-based soups and hearty stews so having Pho was like the initial shock of suddenly switching from full-fat milk to fat-free.
I was happy to showcase this Vietnamese dish to my in-laws and hope that they truly enjoyed it and will recreate the recipe when I am gone.
Now It’s Your Turn
Vietnamese cuisine may at first seem daunting to cook at home as the techniques and ingredients can seem rather foreign. In areas where some of the ingredients cannot be obtained, a little effort has to be made to either drive to a larger market or to purchase on-line.
But I can tell you that if I can make Pho in a small town like Dunbar, then so can you!
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Pho Noodle Soup
For the broth:
- 4 pounds beef bones , preferably with marrow; cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 pound stewing beef (chuck, brisket, etc), rinsed, cut into 2" cubes
- 1 3- inch piece of ginger , peeled, cut into chunks
- 1 large onion , halved and peeled
- 1/4 cup Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
- 6 whole star anise
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 3- inch cinnamon stick
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- salt and pepper to taste
For the garnish:
- 1 pound 1/4-inch rice noodles
- 2 bunches scallions , thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup tightly packed fresh cilantro leaves , chopped
- 1/2 cup Asian basil leaves
- 1 cup mung bean sprouts
- 1/2 yellow onion , very thinly sliced
- 1 large lime , cut into wedges
- 1/2 pound beef (flank, sirloin, filet mignon), trimmed of fat and sliced very thin across the grain
- Hoisin sauce for dipping the meat
- Hot chilies , sliced or Sriracha sauce (optional)
Place the beef bones and stewing meat into a large stockpot and add enough water to cover. Bring to a full boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Discard the water and gently rinse the meat and bones. Return the meat and bones to the pot and cover with 2 quarts (2 liters) of fresh, cold water. This process will give you a cleaner and clearer broth.
Bring the stock to boil again over high heat and then reduce to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes and skim any scum that surfaces.
Add the remaining broth ingredients, cover and simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours, occasionally skimming any scum that surfaces. Remove the stewing meat and once the meat is cool enough to handle, slice thinly and place in the fridge for later use.
Simmer the broth for another 1.5 hours and carefully strain through a fine sieve. Remove any remaining tendon from the bones, slice thinly and set aside in the fridge with the cooked beef.
De-fat the stock by skimming the fat from the surface with a spoon or ladle. (I sometimes use a fat separator to retain as much of the stock as possible.)
Add the fish sauce, then the sugar, salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange the cilantro, scallions, bean sprouts, onions, Asian basil, lime wedges, and chillis on a large plate in separate piles. Place the hoisin sauce in small dipping bowls as a condiment for the meat.
Prepare the rice noodles, drain and divide among the bowls.
Just before serving, return the broth to a full boil.
Place the raw sliced onions, the reserved cooked meat and tendon, and the slices of raw beef over the noodles in each bowl.
Carefully ladle the boiling broth over all the ingredients in the serving bowls. The raw beef should be submerged in the broth to cook properly.
Serve immediately, along with the garnish and hoisin sauce.
This post was originally published on September 10, 2011.