Hearty Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup
Pho (pronounced like the French word for fire, feu) means “noodle,” as well as “noodle soup,” and bo means “beef.” In this classic pho, a slowly simmered beef broth, aromatic with star anise, cinnamon, and ginger, is poured over rice noodles, thinly sliced beef, and fresh basil leaves. The hot broth cooks the beef almost instantly.
The soup is originally from the north, but it is now a classic throughout Vietnam. We first tasted it at a restaurant outside Saigon as we were setting off on a long trip by car to northern Vietnam; the seductive flavors of the soup, and the combination of salt, pepper, and lime juice into which we dipped tender pieces of beef, made us happy to be on the road.
In Vietnam, beef noodle soup is traditionally eaten as we ate it that first time, for breakfast; people sit at little food stalls, chopsticks in one hand and spoon in the other, eating large bowls of the fragrant noodle soup.
In Vietnam, beef bones, unlike pork bones, are washed before using; the recipe starts the traditional way, with instructions for boiling the oxtails or ribs, then discarding the water and starting to make the stock.
If you freeze the beef stock, you may wish to serve it as a clear broth on its own or simply poured over thin slices of lean beef, shallot slices, and perhaps several sprigs of basil. Sprinkle with coriander leaves and, if including beef slices, serve with Lime Juice Yin-Yang.
Lime Juice Yin Yang
Simple but elegant, this little condiment is still our favorite combo with beef of every kind, as well as a brilliant way of serving salt and pepper any time. We learned it from a man named Lam, long ago on our first trip to Vietnam.
Coarse sea salt or kosher salt
Very coarsely ground black pepper
Small wedges of lime
Place the salt and pepper in separate shallow bowls, with a spoon for each. Place the lime wedges on a small plate. Give each guest a very small condiment dish.
Demonstrate how to combine flavors by first placing a generous pile of salt on one side of your condiment dish, then a heap of pepper separately on the other side. Squeeze a little lime juice over the space in between.
Use a chopstick to gently mix the proportion of salt and pepper that you wish into the lime juice, making a black-and-white paste.
OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together
Recipe Coursemain course
Dietary Considerationmain course
Taste and Textureherby, savory, spiced
Type of Dishhot soup
- 5 pounds oxtails or beef short ribs
- 6 quarts water
- 5 star anise
- One 2-inch cinnamon stick
- 5 cloves
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 2- to 3-inch piece (about 2 ounces) ginger
- 2 medium onions, cut in half
- 1 pound stewing beef, trimmed of excess fat
- 5 tablespoons Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce, or to taste
- Salt to taste
- 1 pound thin or medium dried rice noodles, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes and drained
- 2 cups bean sprouts, rinsed
- Lime Juice Yin-Yang (see Notes)
- 1 pound eye of round or other boneless lean beef, very thinly sliced across the grain into 1- to 2-inch-long slices
- ½ cup Asian basil or sweet basil leaves
- ½ cup coriander leaves
- 3 shallots, thinly sliced
- 1 or 2 bird or serrano chiles, minced
Place the oxtails or ribs in a large pot, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Boil vigorously for 5 minutes, then drain. Rinse out the pot well, rinse off the oxtails or ribs and place back in the pot.
Add 4 quarts of the water and bring to a boil. Add the star anise, cinnamon stick, cloves, and peppercorns. Using tongs, char the ginger over a gas flame, then add to the pot; use the same method to char the onion pieces, then add to the pot. Alternatively, heat a heavy skillet over high heat, add the ginger and onion pieces, and scorch well on all sides before adding to the pot.
Let the broth boil gently, uncovered, skimming off foam and scum, for about 30 minutes. Add the remaining 2 quarts water, bring back to the boil, and continue to boil gently, skimming off foam. When foam has stopped rising to the surface, lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for another hour.
Add the stewing beef and fish sauce, bring back to a boil, and simmer, uncovered, until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours. Leaving the soup at a simmer, remove the stewing beef and cool slightly. Slice as thin as possible and set aside.
Remove the soup from the heat and remove and discard the bones and solids. For a traditionally clear broth, line a colander with a double layer of cheesecloth and strain the soup into a clean bowl. Let the stock cool, then refrigerate, covered, for at least 2 hours.
Skim off the layer of fat from the top of the stock and discard. (The soup can be made ahead to this point and stored in the refrigerator, beef and stock in separate well-sealed containers, for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 1 month.)
About 20 minutes before you wish to serve the soup, remove the meat and stock from the refrigerator and set the meat aside. Transfer the stock to a pot and heat until warm. Strain through cheesecloth as described above, return to the pot, and bring to a boil. Taste for seasonings and add fish sauce or salt as desired, then simmer gently, half covered, while you prepare the accompaniments.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop in the rice noodles and cook until just tender but not mushy, 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Transfer to a colander, rinse with cold water, and set aside. Blanch the bean sprouts briefly in the same boiling water, then set aside.
Provide each guest with a spoon and a pair of chopsticks, as well as a small side plate with the Lime Juice Yin-Yang—a generous pile of salt, another of black pepper beside it, and a lime wedge or two—to be used as a condiment for the beef slices (see below). Set out the raw beef, along with small dishes of the herbs, shallots, bean sprouts, and sliced chile.
To serve, divide the noodles among 6 to 8 large bowls. Top each serving with a generous pinch of bean sprouts, a few shallot slices, several basil leaves, slices of cooked beef, and slices of raw beef.
Ladle the hot broth over and sprinkle with the coriander.
2000 Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Dugid