Everything you need for Pho, Hanoi street markets, Vietnam

Everything you need for Pho, Hanoi street markets, Vietnam

One’s culture can be found in its soup.  Take the bouillabaisse for example, which was served by the Marseillais de Venus to her husband Vulcan to lull him into sleep. The Roman armies are supposed to have marched to war on a diet of minestrone. In Vietnam, Pho is a piping hot history lesson in a bowl. It’s aromatic broth cooked up with spices such as star anise and cloves, hint at decades of Chinese occupation, the manner in which the broth is cooked, much like a pot-au-feu  is a method that still remains years after the end of French colonialism. The accompaniments served with Pho, such as Vietnamese basil, mint, wedges of lime, bean sprouts, differ from North to South and are reminders of civil divide.

Vegetable stand, street market, Hanoi

Whilst in North America, Pho is found on lunchtime menus at Vietnamese restaurants, in Vietnam, the soup is more commonly eaten for breakfast. Having never been one for cereals or toast, in 2002 and 2003, I had the good fortune to live in Hanoi. Starting my day of with a bowl of Pho at one of the many roadside restaurants was a small, daily pleasure. Often set up right alongside the many ubiquitous street-side market stands which sold fresh herbs and vegetables, rice noodles as well as beef bones and steak, the Pho essentials would often make their way directly off the stand and into my waiting soup bowl.

Vegetable seller, street market, Hanoi.

I was apprehensive about moving to Vietnam. I had been living in Cambodia at the time, and several fellow expatriates who had visited the neighboring country before me, had returned claiming how “pushy and pissed off” the Vietnamese were compared to the sweet and considerate Khmer.

But if the Vietnamese were pissed off, didn’t they have good reason to be? In the late 1940’s, after thirty years of travelling the world, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam, set up shop in a cave, and began plotting Vietnam’s political future.  Working alongside the Americans, Vietnam defeated the French in 1954. Any joy towards independance barely registered amongst the average Vietnamese. A general (US supported) democratic election had failed to allow the communist-Northern state to vote, and as a result, a war between the Viet Cong and Southern Vietnam began. When North Vietnam fired on two American ships in international waters, the latter stepped in and well the rest is a messy, bloody history, which left the country broke, hungry and very angry.

Unlike many developing countries where years of aid assistance has often left people unmotivated or without basic skills, I found the Vietnamese to be ambitious, ready to learn and some of the most industrious and hard-working people I had met.  It is no wonder then that today Vietnam profits from one of Asia’s most prosperous economies and proportionally rakes in more foreign investment than mighty China.

Beef bones for broth

Whilst I was based in Hanoi, the international NGO I was working for was the largest in the country, and as a result, my work took me all over Vietnam.  Two things were common no matter where I went: the talk of promise amongst the Vietnamese and the importance they place at meal times. I can still remember the aroma of grilled bananas and coconut sticky rice I shared with the once-destitute cyclo repair guy who was suffering from HIV, yet whose life had been transformed after a micro-enterprise loan. There were the lunch times I spent in the countryside listening to farmer’s debate about rice cultivating techniques over plates of chicken in caramel sauce. One of my favorite memories in the country was grilling lemongrass squid over a table-top barbeque with a group of young Vietnamese Doctors who were running a local hospital in Hai Phong province which was providing free, but high-quality preventative and therapeutic care to the poorest of the poor.

Today, Vietnam’s development progress is a good lesson to be learned.  Maintaining strong ownership of it’s own development agenda, and consistently making good use of foreign assistance, the number of Vietnamese living on less than $US1.25/day has fallen from 64 percent in 1992 to 21.5 percent in 2006. One of few Asian developing countries who have met their MDG’s, Vietnam’s persistence has resulted in cutting mortality rates by half between 1990 and 2006 and almost all Vietnamese children go to school today. Furthermore, during the food price crisis in 2009, which crippled many developing country economies, Vietnam was barely affected, having invested wisely into agriculture practice and production.

Andrea Nguyen, Vietnamese cook writes that if you were to gather a Northern, Southern and Central Vietnamese person in a room together, they will argue about both the origins of Pho and who makes the best soup in the country, yet surround them with other foreign nationalities, and they will group together and declare Pho as the world’s best noodle soup. It’s probably this type of pride that has helped pull the country out of the pits of poverty and into sustained progress.

How to Make Beef Pho

This recipe is based on both  Anna Nguyen’s recipe from her book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen as well as Mai Pham’s book Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table.

The key to a good Pho is in it’s broth, which is best made from good beef soup (preferably leg) bones which can be found in most supermarkets, butchers, and usually available pre-cut and bagged in Asian supermarkets for a couple of dollars.    Whilst the broth takes several hours to make, you can freeze batches of it, and then thaw and add fresh accompaniments when ready to eat it at a later date.


2 yellow onions, skins left on

4 knuckle-sized pieces of fresh ginger, unpeeled

5-6 pounds of beef leg bones, cut into 2-3 inch pieces (ask your Butcher to cut them up for you, it won’t take more than a minute)

6 quarts water (24 cups of water)

5-6 star anise, lightly roasted in pan before use

6 whole cloves, lightly roasted in pan before use

A cinnamon stick

1 1/3 pounds of boneless beef (chuck, rump, brisket or cross-rib roast) and cut into 2 inch wide pieces (These are also cheap cuts and readily available in supermarkets and butchers)


1 ½ -2 pounds of small, flat rice noodles

½ pound sirloin or round steak, cut as paper-thin as you can (Asian grocery stores will do it for you, or sell it pre-sliced)

1 yellow onion, sliced paper thin

3-4 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced

1/3 cup chopped coriander

Black pepper

Optional garnishes

1-2 cups bean sprouts

A few sprigs of mint

A few sprigs of Vietnamese or Thai basil

A little cilantro

2-3 limes cut into wedges

Chili sauce to taste

A few diced red chillis

Making the Broth

Step 1  Charring the onions and ginger

This step gives Pho its unique smoky, yet sweet taste. Place unpeeled onion and ginger on a charcoal grill or barbeque, or under the grill of an electric stove.  Let the skin burn,  rotate the onions and ginger and discard any flyaway onion skin.  Took until onions and ginger are softened (about 15 minutes).   When amply charred, remove from heat and let cool.

Step 2  Rinse onion and ginger

Rinse cooled onions under running water, rubbing off charred and blackened skin.  Using a vegetable peeler, remove the ginger skin.  Hold under warm water, to wash off any blackened bits.  Half the ginger lengthwise. Set both aside.

Step 3. Parboil the beef bones

To achieve a clear broth, parboil and rinse the beef bones. Put them in a large stockpot and add enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil to high heat and then boil vigorously for 2-3 minutes to release impurities from bones. Dump the bones into a clean sink and then rinse with water to wash off any clinging residue. Scrub the stockpot clean and return bones to pot.

Step 4. Add spices

Pour in the water; bring to a boil over high heat and lower heat to gentle simmer.  Skim off any scum that rises to top. Add the onions, and then place the ginger, star anise, cloves, cinnamon in a muslin bag and into pot.  Put boneless beef into the pot and then add the salt, fish sauce, sugar and cook uncovered for 1.5 hours, adjusting the heat if needed to maintain a simmer.

Step 5.  Remove boneless meat

At this point, the boneless meat should be slightly chewy, but not tough. Remove and discard and then keep the broth at a simmer for 1 1/2 hours longer.

Step 6. Straining the broth

Strain broth through a fine-mesh sieve positioned over a pot.  Discard remaining solids and skim off any fat, take out muslin bag.  Taste and adjust flavor with salt, fish sauce and sugar.  There should be about 16 cups of broth now.

Assemble the Bowls

Step 7. Soak dried noodles as per packet instructions. Strain when ready.

Step 8. Ready the yellow onions, scallions, cilantro, and pepper for adding to bowls. Arrange the garnishes on a plate and put on table.

Step 9. Bring broth to a simmer over medium heat as you assemble the bowls. Add a portion of strained noodles into each bowl.

Step 10. Top each bowl of noodles with raw beef slices, arranging slices flat. Place a mound of yellow onion in center and shower with scallion and cilantro.  Finish with a bit of pepper.

Step 11. Raise the heat and bring broth to a rolling boil. Taste for any last-minute seasoning. Ladle about 2 cups of broth into each bowls, distributing hot liquid evenly to warm all ingredients. Serve immediately with the plate of garnishes.  If you don’t like the idea of eating raw meat, don’t worry, the hot broth will cook the meat immediately.