I've been trying to replicate the delicious pho soup you can get in pretty much any Vietnamese restaurant or fast-food. It has this very specific taste—not overpowering, a sort of pleasant blend of different spices. It comes in many variants, and I think every Vietnamese family will have their own version. You can have chicken pho (Pho Ga) or beef pho (Pho Bo). I made the chicken version, in part because chicken is cheaper, and because I happened to have some chicken breasts in the fridge.
If you search for "easy pho", you'll find many recipes with a super long ingredient list full of exotic stuff like hoisin sauce and fish sauce. I based my recipe on some of those, reduced to things I had in the cupboard. It turned out just fine!
First, the spices. They make the body of the soup, give it the unmistakable pho flavor.
- fennel seeds
- star anise
- coriander seeds
- peppercorn (black pepper)
How much of which spice, that's really a question. I used about a teaspoon of fennel and one of coriander seeds, half of a single star anise (about 4 pods), 5 balls of pepper, and 3 black coriander seeds—crush the pod, discard the shell and store the seeds in some jar, they're very aromatic and you won't need the whole lot here. Recipes usually call for green coriander; I have only black coriander, but it worked well.
The next step is a little odd: you take the spices and toast them in a dry pan until they're a bit charred. It'll smoke and you can easily burn them, it takes some practice. Certainly use lower heat for this. The spices should become more fragrant by toasting. Speaking of toasting, try toasting sesame seeds sometime, they're just the best—you can put them perhaps on cucumber salad.
Take the toasted spices and crush them in a mortar or a spice grinder. You want a fine powder, no big pieces—though some chunks won't really hurt.
You'll need some fat or oil to mix the spices in. I read about sesame oil here, but since I don't have that, I used a piece of lard. Worked fine too. Set it on low heat, toss in the spice blend and roast for a bit while stirring with a wooden spoon.
Now is the time to add veggies. I tried carrot, parsley and the other usual soup stuff, but that didn't really taste good here. Leek is a great option. Onion would work as well. Sauté the veggies in the fat & spice mix for a bit. This will let them develop more flavor of their own and absorb some from of the spice, too. If it starts sticking to the pan, you can add a bit of water and continue stirring.
When you're satisfied with the base, add chicken broth. Now, I don't know what all the recipe authors think, but who has chicken broth just sitting around to add to things? I used a chicken broth cube with some water heated in the kettle. Fast, easy, who cares it's not real. Add salt if needed.
I'm not entirely sure how you're supposed to prepare the meat, so I just roasted it in olive oil with a bit of salt and nutmeg, and then tossed it in the soup. This will prevent it releasing the nasty white foam you get when cooking raw chicken (I think it's proteins relased from the meat). It worked okay, but the chicken was a bit boring. Maybe you can marinate it beforehand, grill it, who knows. You can also prepare the chicken separately and add it to the plate when serving, that's how you'll do it with beef.
Yes, herbs. This is important, you want something green in the soup. It'll look and taste boring without herbs. If you have fresh cilantro, perfect, throw in a bunch right before serving. Spring onion greens will also work. Basically whatever, so long as it's green, will do the trick.
You can put the herbs as a garnish on the serving plate, or let them simmer for a bit if they're tougher. Just don't overdo it with the cooking here, or they lose their crunch and color.
I should've said this at the top, but, you absolutely need the right noodles for Pho. The flat rice ones. Sure, you can fake it with other kinds, but it won't be the same. The noodle package comes with instructions, just follow it and prepare the noodles separately from the soup. When done, cool the noodles with cold water to stop the cooking process and to wash away excess starch, so they won't stick together.
Now, absolutely DO NOT add the noodles to the soup pot. You'll put them into the serving plate or bowl and pour the soup over it. They'd get all gooey if you cooked them further in the pot, or left them in the soup overnight and then tried to reheat them.
Pour the soup over your prepared noodles, garnish with greens as you like, and serve. You eat it with spoon and chopsticks. That's not a gimmick, you can't really eat the noodles with the spoon alone. They're way too slimy. Maybe you could try fork if you really have to.
The soup, as is, is okay, but needs some.. bite. Sting. Something to give it a punch. I experimented a bit, and my final combination is: bit of sriracha chilli sauce, lime juice, and fresh grated garlic. You can use pickled garlic tool, if you have any. Just a few drops of the lemon are enough. You don't want to boil the garlic, it'd lose the sting and change the soup's flavor. You could perhaps add some chilli flakes earlier, I can see that working well.
Stir it well with these additions, and you'll get the most excellent Pho flavor.
Whoa, that was actually a pretty long article for such a simple recipe. Let me know if you tried it, I'd love to learn more Pho tricks or how to do it properly without weird exotic ingredients.