What is phở bò?
It's beef noodle soup — one of the light dishes in Vietnamese cuisine. In recent years, it has gone mainstream. I have seen it served in trendy restaurants in the northeastern regions of the United States, including the Cheese Cake Factory in Hackensack, NJ and the Elephant Walk restaurants in Cambridge, MA. In New Orleans, LA, it is not uncommon to see Americans go into a Vietnamese restaurant and ask for this tasty beef noodle soup.
Phở bò is a bowl of rice linguine in a beef broth that that was made from the juice of bones slowly cooked to the right aroma and taste. There are two preferred broth flavors commonly eaten by the Vietnamese: chicken and beef. If I want a bowl of beef flavored broth, then the broth is made from cow bones. The meat will be razor sharp slices of beef placed on top a pile of rice linguine topped with a mixture of minced coriander, green onion, and thin slices of regular onion. If I want a bowl of chicken flavored, then the broth is made from a free-ranged chicken, cooked whole with some chicken bones. The topping for this is similar to beef broth, only with sizeable shreds or chunks of chicken.
For both of these flavors, the side dish will be a small plate of fresh bean sprouts, wedges of lime, slices of hot chili peppers, and a few twig of fresh Asian sweet basil. Other condiments used to enhance the flavor and aroma and individual taste before eating the soup are the hoisin sauce, red chili pepper sauce, and a dash of fish sauce, if it's not salty enough. I like mine to be spicy and salty so I often use a teaspoon of chili sauce and two dashes of fish sauce. The hoisin sauce used for phở has to be that one that is made specifically for phở. It is different than the one used in Chinese moo shi dish.
The secret to a delicious bowl of phở lies in the broth. The making of a home-made broth is simple. The ingredients include the bones — ligaments, tendons, collagens, fat tissues, muscle meat and bone marrows — of choice (beef or chicken), a bag of five spices, some ginger, and one whole regular onion. The texture of the broth has to be clear and transparent, so the bones need to be cleaned first by bringing them to a boil and then rinse them off with tap water. Once done, put the bones back in the pot and immerse them in water, along with some herbs and peeled onion. Bring it to a hard boil, and then lower the flame to simmering.
The slow cook begins and it will take about two to three hours to reach the right aroma and taste, or until the meat on the bones are tender. While simmering, the grimes from the marrows and fat droplets will float on top, so skim them off to make the broth clearer and more appealing. When done, season the broth with fish sauce, remove the bones and cut off any meaty parts to serve with phở. Don't throw them away until someone who loves these things gnaws them off. We, Vietnamese, do not have the habit of wasting anything.
Where do I buy these essential ingredients? The cow bones, ginger, coriander, Asian sweet basil and the rest of the recipe can be bought from any Asian grocery stores in town. I buy my herb bags at the local Chinese medicine and herbal store. The best herb bag is the kind that is put together by the local herbalist from his collection of both medicinal and cooking herbs.
The ingredients are as follows:
- 2 lbs of cow bones
- A bag of five spices: whole cloves, cinnamons, cumin, coriander, and anise seed stars
- Ginger — one or two snaps with the skin off
- One whole regular onion with skin peeled off
- Twigs of sweet basil
- Bean sprouts
- Chili peppers of one's choice
- Phở hoisin sauce
- Red hot pepper chili sauce
- Rice linguine — fresh or dried
Anna Nguyen is a writer for Ngoc Lan Thoi Bai.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons