I believe that one of the hardest things to do with PHO is to pronounce it correctly. We all know that “PH” is pronounced like a “F” and the “O”, well, like an “O”. So you would think it was pronounced “FO” as in Fee Fi “Fo” Fum or “PHO”to. Much to my surprise, “PHO” in the Vietnamese language has a mark over the O that softens it and is pronounced “FUH”, just like how you would start to say the FUH sound in Fudge, Fun or Elmer Fudd. If I’m in the company of American friends, I’ll pronounce it phonetically: “PHO”. But when I’m in a PHO restaurant I’ll be properly respectful and say “FUH”. No matter how you pronounce it, it has become one of my favorite comfort foods.
What the PHO is PHO? It is a Vietnamese soup bowl loaded with noodles, beef (or your favorite protein), vegetables and the most fragrant and delicious broth. It is the broth that makes the PHO. It’s served with condiments on the side such as: bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime (or lemon) wedge, Jalapeño slices, perhaps some cilantro and always Sriracha hot chili sauce and Hoisin (sweet) sauce.
How to properly eat PHO. There are several different ways, but pretty much all have the following in common: First of all, forget a fork. I would be so embarrassed to use a fork while eating PHO. It’s not that hard to figure out chopsticks. Just practice a few times before you go out for PHO and you’ll get it. Also when served your delicious bowl of PHO, you will get an Asian soup spoon. I always have chopsticks in one hand and the soup spoon in the other. Start by tasting the broth. Take time to notice its clarity. Savor it’s depth and deliciousness, it should be nice and rich and fragrant. PHO is all about the broth, everything else is secondary.
Step 1: Fill your soup spoon up and savor the broth like it’s a fine wine. A good PHO broth is rich and scrumptious.
Step 2: Hand tear the Thai basil (and cilantro if that is included) and introduce it to the bowl. Next, put a generous handful of sprouts in the bowl too. Jalapeño slices too if you wish. Finish up by squeezing the lime in your PHO.
Step 3: Save the Sriracha hot chili sauce and Hoisin (sweet) sauce for a small sauce bowl that should be with your setup. Putting it directly into your bowl of PHO will compromise the awesomeness of the broth. Instead, just dip your beef in the sauce as you consume it. (see step #6 below)
Step 4: With your chopsticks, stir it all up releasing the flavor of the condiments you just added and to cook any of the proteins you might have (beef, chicken, shrimp, etc.).
Step 5: Here’s where it becomes a personal preference: I start by grabbing a bunch of noodles with my chopsticks, get my face over the bowl (at a 45° angle), shove the noodles in my mouth guiding them in with your chopsticks as you go. This is a traditional Asian way to eat noodles. Slurping is not only accepted, but a sign that you are enjoying your PHO. I also have my soup spoon in the other hand full of broth ready to indulge.
The other way is to compile the noodles, beef and veggies into your soup spoon and gingerly insert into mouth. This is for folks that are a bit timid about slurping or just want to be polite. I threw the politeness and political correctness away a long time ago. The bottom line is: “Enjoy your PHO”!
Step 6: Put some the Sriracha hot chili sauce and Hoisin (sweet) sauce in your sauce bowl. You can mix them together or as I do, leave them segregated so you can control the proportion of each as you please. Sometimes I want it a little hotter, sometimes I like it a little sweeter. I never add those directly into my PHO bowl. You loose the awesome flavor of the broth if you do that. Next, pick up your beef, etc. with chopsticks and dredge through the sauces and enjoy.
Step 7: When you get to the bottom of your PHO bowl, I don’t hesitate to lift it up to my lips, tilt it and savor every last drop.
Last, but not least: Accompany it with a nice Asian beer!
PHO Beef Bowl
Pho Soup serves 8
For the broth:
4 pounds oxtails; cut into 1 1/2 to 2-inch pieces and trimmed of fat
2 pounds of good beef bones, preferably leg and knuckle
1 inch chunk of yellow rock sugar (about 1 oz) – or 1oz of regular sugar
2 gallons cold water (approximately)
One 3-inch piece of ginger, unpeeled
1 large onion, halved and unpeeled
1/3 cup Vietnamese fish sauce
For the Beef:
1 Pound thinly sliced beef
In a bouquet garni (spice packet):
8 whole star anise pods
5 whole cloves
1 3-inch cinnamon stick, broken into 3/4 to 1 inch pieces
1 tbl fennel seeds, lightly crushed
1 tbl coriander seeds
3 cardamom pod, lightly crushed
3 bay leaves
For the garnish:
2 bunches scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup tightly packed fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves (found at Thai or Asian markets; you an subsititute regular basil if unavailable
1-1/2 cups mung bean sprouts
3 large limes, cut into wedges
Sliced fresh hot chilies (optional)
4 14 oz. pack of rice noodles
(I prefer the long flat rice noodles that look similar in shape to linguini)
Sriracha red chile sauce
Lightly coat the onions and ginger with oil and Char under your broiler. Set aside.
Bring a stock pot of cold water to a boil, add bones and boil vigorously for 5 – 10 minutes. This will extract all the residual blood and impurities and create quite the scum to rise to the surface of the pot. Drain and rinse the bones and the pot. Refill the pot with the rinsed bones and 8 quarts of cold water, bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Add ginger, onion, spice packet, beef, sugar, fish sauce, salt and simmer uncovered for at least 1 1/2 hours. Use a strainer to remove any little bit of scum that might appear. Remember to keep some of the fat & marrow bits, they add a lot of flavor to the broth.
Strain broth and return the broth to the pot. Taste broth and adjust. Cook noodles per directions on package, drain and place in bowl(s).
Arrange sliced beef atop of the noodles.
You’ll want the broth really hot (bring to a boil) just before you serve it (to cook the beef and vegetables in the bowl).
Ladle the hot broth into the bowl(s) and serve.
Your guests will “assemble” their own bowls with garnish that is already on the table.
Enjoy your wonderful PHO!