Seriously. I thought that we had a really good thing going here. I felt like we had a strong relationship built on trust. I mean, I’ve always been up front with you about everything.
I’ll prove it, here: I sucked my thumb until I was eight years old, at which point my dentist made me a night retainer with a grille coming down in the middle of it to prevent thumb insertion. The retainer was gold and sparkly and had a picture of a unicorn on it.
There you go. I HAVE NO SECRETS LEFT. I lie naked before you, stripped of all artifice.
But you? You’ve known me all this time, and YOU NEVER TOLD ME ABOUT PHO. And now I’m left wondering: what else have you not told me about? You write erotic Top Chef fanfic under a pseudonym? You never liked my mother? I’ve had spinach in my teeth all this time?
I put fish in a food processor for you, and this is how you repay me? I made you creamy aspic. I MADE YOU A PAULA DEEN CASSEROLE, for god’s sake.
I’m sorry I’m so yelly tonight. BUT BABY JESUS IN THE MANGER WITH THE WISE MEN, YOU COULD HAVE TOLD ME ABOUT THE GODDAMNED PHO. Thirty-four years I’ve wasted here.
Okay, I’ve taken several deep breaths and consumed an equal number of Moscow Mules, so I’m feeling calmer and ready to forgive and move on.
So I made pho today! Beef pho.
Here are several things you will not find in this post, because they are either completely untrue or inappropriate:
- A reminiscence about how I first fell in love with pho when I was a poor student sharing a 2-bedroom railroad apartment with five other girls and I had to scrape up loose change from the sofa to pay for a few moments alone with a soul-warming bowl of pho at that hole-in-the-wall joint around the corner to keep me sane through my last two years of college.
- A heartfelt collection of memories about how I remember visiting my grandma’s house as a child, and how the smell of pho broth simmering still transports me to Sunday afternoons sitting, the backs of my legs stuck to her plastic-covered sofa, reading Highlights while she and my mother spent the afternoon pickling carrots.
- Bad puns substituting the word “pho” for “fuck.”
- The story of the year I spent teaching ESL in Vietnam, where my culinary world was completely rocked by the stall on Ly Tu Trong in East Hanoi where I first slurped down a bowl of pho with two of my students. I’m not sure who learned more that year: them, or me. When I finally got back to the states, I spent two years and made countless pots of broth trying to duplicate what Mr. Dang created so effortlessly.
Instead, I read about pho in some cookbooks and online. I watched an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives about a Vietnamese-American diner. Then I formulated a scaled-down recipe (in case what I made sucked) and threw myself into the pho-making process.
I boiled my oxtails to draw out all the funk. I charred my onions and ginger and toasted my whole spices. I threw everything into a big honking stock pot with fresh water and left it to simmer for hours. I chopped all the garnishes and sliced some raw beef.
Because I would not lie to you, I’ll come clean about the following:
- While the broth was simmering, there was a good chunk of time where I thought it smelled seriously stank and was really unsure about this whole pho thing.
- I know that this is lacking some hallmarks of a truly authentic pho; namely, I just used oxtail and not any beef bones.
- Honestly, having never before had pho, I have no way of knowing if what I ended up with was a wonderful pho or a shitty travesty of a pho.
- I used fresh udon noodles instead of rice noodles.
All that being said: holy shit, this bowl of food was the best thing I’ve eaten in a really long time. I dare say that this was the BEST THING I HAVE EVER MADE, and I say that as someone who once smeared a perfectly charred medium-rare prime ribeye with gorgonzola butter.
While eating, I had to close my eyes and lean back in my chair to block out my other senses and concentrate fully on the layers of flavor unfolding. Rich, complex, salty, pungent, sweet, fresh, spicy. The tenderness of the barely-cooked beef playing with the chewy noodles and crunch of mung bean sprouts and fresh herbs and chiles.
It may well be that what I ended up making was godawful relative to other variations of pho in the world. And I don’t care. I’m in love.
Small-Batch Questionable Beef Pho Broth
adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet
makes 3 cups of finished broth
2.5 lbs. oxtail
1 large white onion
3-inch knob of fresh ginger
5-inch hunk of fresh daikon
4-inch whole cinnamon stick
4 star anise pods
2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
4 whole cloves
6 whole green cardamom pods
3 tbsp. fish sauce
2 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
3 qts. + 3.5 qts. of cold water
Put the oxtail in a large stock pot with 3 quarts of cold water. Put the pot over high heat and bring it to a boil. Boil the oxtail for 5 minutes; this will draw out a bunch of gray scum that you can discard. Remove the oxtail, discard the water and clean out the pot. Put the oxtail back into the clean pot.
Peel the onion and hack it in half. Char it on all sides until it’s good and dark; you can either do this over the flame of a gas stove (what I did) or under the broiler in the oven. Do the same thing with the ginger. Put the onion and ginger in the pot with the oxtail.
Put the cinnamon, anise, peppercorns, cloves, bay and cardamom in a small pan over medium heat. Toast them for a few minutes – when you start to smell them, they’re done. Dump them into the pot.
Put the remaining ingredients – daikon, fish sauce, sugar, salt and 3 1/2 quarts of water – in the pot. Bring to a boil and reduce to a vigorous simmer. Simmer for 3 hours, skimming off any other foam or scum that rises to the top. Near the end of the cook time, taste and adjust the seasoning – you may need a touch more salt, sugar or fish sauce.
To get a nice, clear finished product, remove the oxtail, onion, ginger and daikon from the pot. Pour the broth through a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth to get out the spices and random little bits of stuff.
If you’d like, you can skim off the fat or put the broth in the fridge overnight and remove the fat the next day. I didn’t end up with much fat, so I left it in for flavor and mouthfeel.
Cooked rice noodles
1/4 lb. thinly sliced raw beef per person (I used filet mignon; you can also use flank, eye round or sirloin)
Cooked oxtail meat
Thinly sliced fresh chile
Mung bean sprouts
Sriracha or Thai chile-garlic paste
In a good-size bowl, heap a pile of noodles and shingle on the slices of raw beef; add some cooked oxtail if you’d like.
Arrange the lime, chile, herbs and sprouts on a plate and set out the sriracha, chile paste and hoisin.
Pour the hot broth over the noodles and meat, and add whatever garnishes you’d like (I recommend everything).
I was ( unknown to me) very ill the first time I had pho; I literally ran from the restaurant to avoid retching inside. I didn’t tell you about it because it didn’t seem like a good recommendation.
yay you…nice that your first attempt included the charring of the onion and ginger, nobody told me about that until last summer….
Nobody can be told about pho – when you are ready, it will find you.
oh, pho. I really love it, especially doused with sriracha. I have never made it at home, but am lucky to live in an area with a lot of Vietnamese folks and tons of restaurants that serve it (and banh mi, which are a whole ‘nother realm of goodness). Good pho, as you know, is truly awesome. Bad pho, on the other hand, tastes like dirty dishwater and looks enough like it that your stomach begins running out of the restaurant before you do. Your pho looks terrific. BTW, just to be annoying, did you know it is pronounced “fuh”? I didn’t until a nice Vietnamese person who spoke perfect English finally got tired of me mauling his language.
ok, I’ll take your word on it, now you have made me want to try it… but out here in the ‘burbs I don’t think I could find it for miles and miles.
I’ll have to look for it the next time someone drags me out of hickville to a city!
cynic1, vietnamese restaurants have been popping up in the ‘burbs near my parents’ place (not the hippest area) for the last 8ish years or so, so you might get lucky!
First of all, congrats on making what looks like an amazing batch of pho.
I can’t tell you how much I love that cookbook. I spend lots of time in Southeast Asia, and every time I cook something from that book, I’m amazed at how well they’ve adapted the recipes.
Now let me blow your mind once more.
Have you ever eaten khao soi? It’s a Northern Thai noodle curry soup that is, when done right EVEN BETTER THAN pho.
The recipe in Hot Sour Salty Sweet is pretty darn good. Not as good as you’ll find at the Auntie Cat Restaurant (bad translation from the Thai) north of Chiang Mai, but pretty darn good.
To be honest, you don’t really have to make your own curry paste. But it will taste better if you do…
@bev, that happened to me with pad thai, and it was years before i tried it again. tragic.
@kevinq, excellent answer.
@gloria, i did know about the pronunciation. i managed to stay away from bad puns all night, although i am sad to report that brian could not.
@john, see, that’s the kind of honesty i expect from my readers. i love thai food, i love noodles and i love curry, so it’s definitely on my to-try list.
but better than pho? does not compute.
I’m just sorry you had to watch Guy-PHOKING-Fierrrrry to find out about this. I’m not the Boss of You.
Awesome post, could have been taken out of my diary from when i first tried pho at the pitiful age of 43. I felt simultaneously betrayed by the world for having kept this from me, and humiliated for being exposed as the midwestern hick that I am. Mostly I was sad for all those years of missed bowls of pho. Trying to make up for it now by making it myself, and also banh mi which was another revelation. I’m not sure if there was a particular reason you didn’t use rice noodles, but if not I really encourage you to try that next time. I think it’ll transform your love into full on lust. And thanks for the mention of Hot Sour Salty Sweet, sounds like a must-buy.
I learned one thing from teaching: when something seems obvious…it’s not. I would have thought you’d run across this amazing dish in your culinary pursuits and adventures. So……sorry. As a half Korean that hangs with SE Asians all the time, things like pho are just common place for me. Pho, is just the beginning of where you can go. I mean bare minimum. Your version looks delicious! Try thinly sliced celery in there next time. I hate celery but I love it in pho. I feel like I should make a list of things and see if you’ve tried it but that’d be a hell of a list!
Would you reconsider your stance on pho puns if you knew there was a pho restaurant in Vancouver (to which I’ve never been, but it kept me amused all through high school) named Pho Bich Nga?
Welcome to the land of Pho. I only discovered it late last year when a pho joint opened up near where my fiance works. It’s amazing. Cheap too! I’ve seen recipes but they look too fussy for me. I’d rather have someone else cook it for me and bring it to me steamy and noodley.
I’m with Misa on this one. It just doesn’t occur to me to think of the foods that run into an everday line. Please tell me you’ve had a good Korean meal before.
yes!!! Pho is the awesome! Congratulations, your version looks delish. Plum sauce is also a lovely add-in.
Re pronunciation + bad puns: the new Vietnamese restaurant in our neighborhood is called Pho Kim. Seriously.
@jean, the book came highly recommended, and so far i’ve found it to be excellent. highly recommended.
@camille, i would not. i’m pretty firm on the no-pun point.
@hanna, um…yes i have? that wasn’t very convincing, was it.
You know the BEST thing about pho? It’s super-fast and about $5 at a Vietnamese restaurant, which is about 5 hours and $50 less than making it at home. I’m glad you’re on the pho-train, but seriously. Unless this was wicked fun for you, just buy it. You won’t be sorry!
John’s khao soi recommendation is spot on. It’s an interesting mix of softened noodles with crunchy fried noodle topping. Curry meets soup meets om nom deliciousness.
And to the comment at hand: that soup looks pho-nomenal! [Sorry, had to.]
Well thanks a lot for inspiring me to try making pho on my own now. My butcher sure looked at me like I was apeshit insane when I asked if he ever stocked oxtail. I settled for some poorly trimmed beef bones, I hope it tastes decent.
@katie, i think it’s actually more traditional to use beef bones, so you’re on the right track, and that when beef bones are used another cut of meat, like a flank steak, is also tossed in the pot toward the end of the cooktime and served in the finished soup.
I make this often. My suggestion is to leave the original broth and just skim off the gunk. It’ll give you better flavor. And there’s nothing wrong with adding beef bouillon.
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