P-H-O: Three Letters That Spell the Greatest Soup in the World
May 25, 2011
While living in California in the mid-1990s, I noticed a small, nondescript restaurant near my workplace. There was only one simple sign out front: PHO. After driving by the mysterious PHO for several weeks, I finally gave in to curiosity and went in and asked for a menu. The man behind the counter spoke very little English, but he got across that there was no menu. The restaurant served only one thing, a Vietnamese beef and rice noodle soup called phở bò (pho*). My only choices were portion size: a big bowl or a really big bowl. I ordered a big bowl and received a huge bowl of noodle soup with thinly sliced, very rare beef on top. I also received a big plate heaped with fresh bean sprouts, scallions, cilantro, Thai basil, lime wedges, and jalapeno peppers. All this for less than $5!
I asked the man at the counter what I should do with all that greenery. Working around the language barrier, we established the following: "Put it in the soup. But first you need to add fish sauce (nước mắm), Hoisin sauce, chili sauce, and squeeze the lime juice in." With the addition of all the greenery, the big bowl was becoming even bigger. I could only imagine what the really big bowl would have looked like by this point. Upon tasting the pho, I realized I had made one of the greatest discoveries of my life! This was the best soup I’d ever had, and remains so to this day.
What makes pho so incredibly delicious? Isn’t this just beef noodle soup? Yes, but it is the very special beef broth base made from beef marrow bones that makes the difference. Counterbalancing the richness of the beef are spices (usually including star anise, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves), charred ginger, charred shallots, and yellow rock sugar. This combination is simmered for hours to create a wonderfully aromatic broth. When you order a bowl, the rice noodles are cooked separately and added to the broth in your bowl. The final touch is very thinly-sliced lean raw beef laid in the near-boiling broth on top of the noodles. By the time the bowl gets to the table, the beef is cooked to a very rare finish.
If you feel like making your own pho, look up a recipe on the Web or in a cookbook. You’ll find a wide variety of minor tweaks to the basic recipe, each claiming to be the best. All I know is that I’ve never had a bad bowl of pho. But given the rather involved process, you’re probably better off getting pho at a local Vietnamese restaurant. Once you’ve tried pho, give the rest of the menu a whirl. Vietnamese cuisine is an amazing synthesis of Chinese, Indian, French and native influences. Definitely try the delicate spring rolls with a peanut dipping sauce. That said, I always go back to my favorite Vietnamese restaurants specifically for the pho. Is there a better soup out there, still undiscovered? I’m still looking, but I doubt it.
*Phở is properly pronounced something like "fuh" or "fuhr", but "foe" is acceptable for non-Vietnamese speakers. The origins of the word phở are murky, but many think it comes from the French feu (fire) as in pot-au-feu (beef stew) or from the Chinese fen (rice noodle.)
Photo credit: Flickr user Joshua Rappeneker via Flickr's Creative Commons.Tags: food