Making Phở

I am told that it's important to have a hobby. They say that if work is your life and the work isn't good then you are in trouble. So I've decided that since cooking is a nice way to relax, I'll call it my hobby.

Being in Vietnam, one will necessarily enjoy Phở, a delicious beef noodle soup. I decided that I would remiss in not learning how to make it so I undertook what turned out to be by far the most challenging dish I've ever attempted. As is my wont, I searched out numerous recipes, chose the one that looked most complicated and time consuming, then incorporated some ideas from other sources.

My first attempts didn't go so well. I had the good fortune to make these attempts in the home of a Vietnamese family, so I had some expert advice and comments. The first comment was incredulity that I was using a recipe.  My first batch was too sweet. My second  attempt was too weak.   They had some ideas about how to fix that.  When I went home for the holidays this year, I succeeded in making it a couple times to my satisfaction. I haven't tried the new approach with the family, so keep in mind that this recipe hasn't been put to the true test just yet.

Recipe after the jump.  Also some interesting information about squid.

As I've never written a recipe before, I'm not sure I did it well. I should also acknowledge that I started with this recipe from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham and I may have borrowed a little too liberally from her text, though my recipe is quite different.

The Practical Cinematographer’s guide to making Phở (Work In Progress)

This is a project for an afternoon. Figure on an hours worth of shopping at an Asian market (preferably Vietnamese owned) plus a stop at a regular supermarket. The broth should cook for at least 3 hours. This recipe should feed 6 people with plenty of leftover broth to freeze.


2 - large stock pots (2-3 gallons)

Cheese cloth & cotton string or spice bag
Noodle basket or colander

A big bowl for each person who is dining.
A little side bowl for each person



5 pounds beef marrow bones or knuckle bones -- note 1
2 pounds beef tendon
2 pounds oxtail
optionally 2 pounds beef shank

 2 (3-inch) pieces ginger, cut in half lengthwise and lightly bruised with the flat side of a knife, deeply charred --  note 2
2 yellow onions, peeled and deeply charred
2 dried squid, lightly charred -- 
 note 3
optionally 1 1/2 tablespoons rock sugar, or 1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup fish sauce -- 
note 4

3-4 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan
5 whole cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1 tablespoon whole fennel seeds, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1 cardamom pod, lightly toasted in a dry pan -- note 5
3-4 sticks cinnamon, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1 tablespoon sea salt


2 pounds dried 1/16-inch-wide rice sticks, soaked, cooked and drained  -- note 6
1 pound beef sirloin, slightly frozen, then sliced paper-thin across the grain

1/2 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin
4 scallions, cut into thin rings
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup chopped cilantro

1 pound bean sprouts
10 sprigs Asian basil  -- note 7
10 sprigs Mint
1 dozen saw-leaf herb leaves (also called Ngo Gai or culantro)  -- note 8
6 Thai bird chilies or 1 serrano chili, cut into thin rings  -- note 9
4 limes, cut into 6 thin wedges

Red chili sauce
Hoisin sauce


1.1 In a large stockpot, bring 7 quarts water to a boil. This will become your broth.
1.2 In a second pot, place the bones, oxtail and beef tendon and add water to cover. Bring to a boil. Boil gently for 5 minutes. -- note 10
1.3 Using tongs, rinse the bones, oxtail and beef tendon and add them to the first pot of boiling water. Discard the water used for parboiling.
1.4 When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer.
1.5 Add the charred ginger and onions, fish sauce and charred squid.
1.6 Skim the surface often to remove any foam and fat.
2.1 When the broth has been simmering for about 1 1/2 hours total, toast the spices over medium flame in a small skillet. Place the star anise, and other larger spices in the pan a minute or two before the smaller seeds. Toast 'til they're fragrant, not 'til they'll burn.
2.2 Remove & discard the squid.
2.3 Wrap the spices in a spice bag (or piece of cheesecloth tied with cotton twine) and add to the broth. Let them infuse until the broth is fragrant, about 90 minutes.
2.4 Remove and discard both the spice bag and onions. Add the salt. Add a little sugar to taste, if necessary.
2.6 Continue to simmer, skimming as necessary, until you're ready to assemble the dish.

The broth needs to cook for at least 3 hours. (The broth may taste salty, but the noodles and accompaniments balance it out later on.) Leave the remaining bones and whatnot to simmer in the pot while you assemble the bowls.

3.1 Bring the broth to a boil. Boil another pot of water.

3.2 To serve, prepare each bowl individually. Place a serving of noodles in a bowl and pour boiling water into the bowl for 10-20 seconds. Transfer the boiling water back into the pot whilst straining the noodles. Put the noodles back into the now-heated bowl.

3.3 Place a few slices of the raw sirloin on the noodles. Ladle 2-3 cups of boiling broth into the bowl. The broth will cook the raw noodles instantly.

3.4 Garnish with yellow onions, scallions, cilantro, and fresh ground black pepper

Serve immediately. Additional garnishes to have on the table include bean sprouts, herbs, chilies, lime juice, chili sauce and hoisin sauce.

You can provide little side dishes of lemon juice, hoisin, chili sauce and sliced chili in which to dip the beef slices.



1. Use nice long marrow bones and knuckles. You may need to buy more, because some places supply a mix, and some bones have little to no marrow in them. You want marrow in your broth. Marrowless bones can be tossed to the dog, because they offer no flavor and take up room in your pot.

2. To char ginger, hold the piece with tongs directly over an open flame. A grill works great for me. While turning, char until the edges are somewhat blackened and the ginger is fragrant, about 4 to 7 minutes. Char the onions in the same way. Peel and discard the blackened skins of the ginger and onions, then rinse and add to the broth. Some folks don’t peel them.  I like to char the ginger and onion deeply.  Char the squid in the same way.

3. Believe it or not the squid is for sweetness. Baby squid are sweeter if you can find them. Don’t over char the squid or it will tend to cloud the broth. I cut them lengthwise into 1-inch strips with kitchen scissors and put them in cheesecloth for easy removal.

4. "Fish sauce (nuoc mam), a pungent, salty liquid made from fermented anchovies, adds depth and flavor to numerous Vietnamese dishes. For best results, choose bottles priced at $3 to $4 rather than $1, and pass on jars that are dark, which indicates oxidation or the presence of additives. Look for fish sauce in glass jars. Avoid plastic. The fish sauce should have a nice, even color, like iced tea. Three Crabs, Lobster Boy, and Phu Quoc brands are suggested. When cooking with fish sauce, always add it to other liquids: Never place it directly in a hot, dry pan, which would broadcast its pungent, fishy odor throughout your kitchen in a less-than-pleasant way" -- Chef Mai Pham

5. If you can only find ground cardamom, 5/8 tablespoon should do the trick - it does not need to be toasted.

6. "Rice sticks, or banh pho, are translucent, linguini-shaped dried noodles sold in Asian markets. For pho, buy the small, 1/16-inch-wide variety." Frozen fresh banh pho is preferable to dry rice sticks. If you can only find dry noodles, "soak them in cold water for 30 minutes before using and drain. To prepare the wet noodles bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. When you're ready to serve (not before), place the noodles, one portion at a time, into a bowl and pour the boiling water in to the bowl (thus heating the bowl). Using chopsticks or a long spoon, stir so the noodles untangle and cook evenly. Blanch just until they're soft but still chewy, about 10 to 20 seconds." Drain completely, then transfer back to the now heated bowl. -- Chef Mai Pham

7. "Asian basil, also called Thai or holy basil, has a delicate anise flavor. Regular (sweet) basil does not make a good substitute, as it's too strong. Use mint instead." -- Chef Mai Pham

8. Saw-leaf herb has a floral, cilantro-like flavor and three- to four-inch long, dark-green leaves with serrated edges. Cilantro or Asian basil make fair substitutes, but it is well worth the effort to locate this particular herb. Any market stocking this item is likely to have everything else you need.

9. Red chillies will tend to be hotter & sweeter, thus preferable.

10. Parboiling cleans the bones and meat and reduces the impurities that can cloud the broth. When you parboil the bones, don't let the boil get too vigorous, because it will prematurely eat away at the marrow. This is marrow you want in your broth. It will also turn the remaining marrow an icky dark grey color. This doesn't hurt the flavor, but it makes the broth darker, and  one strives for a clean transparent color.

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