Where phở originally came from has proven inconclusive to researchers. From my little bit of digging around in Hanoi (Hà Nội) I found three theories each with their merits, but one in particular sounding the most likely. First off is a nice little theory that phở originated from the French word feu (fire) as in the dish pot-au-feu (a dish of soup, boiled meat and vegetables). The theory is plausible in that phở is pronounced the same as feu, and that it is a soup dish usually served with boiled meat. However, most of the ingredients in phở and pot-au-feu are different, and in the French version the meat is usually eaten separately from the broth whereas in the Vietnamese version the meat is in the broth, along with the noodles (phở).
Second off is the story that phở was invented during French rule by a talented cook in Nam Định City, which at the time was Vietnam’s largest colonial textile centre. The industry there was an amalgamation of French employers and Vietnamese labourers and the chef, whose name I couldn’t find, decided that to please both the colonialists and the locals he would base a soup on noodles (appealing to the Vietnamese) and beef (appealing to the French) and a few other available ingredients.
Finally, and the theory considered to be the most likely (according to the book PHỞ a Speciality of Hà Nội by Hữu Ngọc and Lady Borton) is that the birthplace of phở was in the village of Vân Cù in the Nam Định province. The story goes that impoverished villagers created phở and then peddled their dish in Hanoi, about 100 kilometres ways. The phở was a huge success amongst both the poor and wealthy residents of Hanoi and this success may explain why several of the best phở chefs in Hanoi originate from Vân Cù Village. Vân Cù villagers do not know who created phở, they only know that in about 1925 a villager named Van became the first person to move to Hanoi to open a phở stall.
Although a year has passed since my 5 week sojourn to the astoundingly brilliant Hanoi, the memories of phở bò in particular remain entrenched in my bank of culinary experiences. The phở that I have created and posted here is a culmination of all the soups I tasted in Hanoi and advice I was given from the Vietnamese friends I made over there. I have tried to stay true to the Hanoian style: a simple, clean and uncomplicated soup that has a deep rich meaty and lightly spiced flavour, with a subtle hint of sweetness. The secret to a great phở is the broth – the broth will make or break your soup. This version is based on phở bò chin (boiled beef) and phở bò tai (rare beef).
Serves: 8 | Preparation: 30-40 minutes | Cooking: 4 hours + resting overnight
For the broth:
2 kg Brisket |
2 kg Beef bones | Get your butcher to cut them in to pieces.
300g Pork rib bones | Adds a ‘sweetness’ to the broth – advised by my Vietnamese friends and connoisseurs of phở
6-7 litres Cold water | Enough to ensure the bones are covered.
1 tbsp. Sea salt |
5 large Asian or French shallots | Unpeeled.
1 bulb Garlic | Unpeeled.
100g Ginger | Unpeeled.
1 Brown onion | Unpeeled.
For the spice pouch:
5 pods Black cardamom |
3 quills Cinnamon |
10 Cloves |
6 pods Star anise |
1 tbsp. Black peppercorns |
Other flavourings for the broth:
150ml Fish sauce | Also have some extra if the broth needs seasoning at the end.
90g Yellow Rock Sugar | This sugar tastes both richer and subtler than refined, granulated sugar. It also gives the broth a beautiful lustre and glaze. White sugar can be used but reduce the amount to about 60g.
Additions to the final Soup:
200g per person Phở (Noodles) | Buy fresh from an Asian grocers.
1 bunch Garlic chives | Finely chopped.
250g Rib eye fillet beef | Sliced thinly.
25g per person Bean sprouts |
6 Spring onions | Chopped.
2 Birds-eye chilli | Finely sliced.
1 to 2 Lemon or lime | Quartered.
1 bunch Asian basil | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Coriander | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Perilla leaves | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Vietnamese mint | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
To season Fish sauce | Only of required.
Over a charcoal grill or a very hot griddle pan place the shallots, garlic bulb, ginger and brown onion and char-grill for about 20 minutes. We want the outer skin burnt and the inside soft; this really adds a depth of flavour of the broth. When done remove the burnt outer skins, discard and then chop up the rest in to smallish pieces.
Again over a charcoal grill or hot griddle pan toast the black cardamom pods, cinnamon quills, cloves and star anise pods for about a minute until really fragrant. Remove the spices from the heat and along with the peppercorns roughly grind them in a spice grinder or with a pestle and mortar. Make a pouch out of muslin cloth and add the spice mix. Tie up the pouch and set aside.
To an 11 litre (or similar) stock pot add the brisket, beef bones, pork rib bones, cold water and sea salt. Ensure that the water covers the bones completely. Bring the meat and bones to the boil and then reduce to a rolling simmer for about 15 minutes. During this time skim any impurities that rise to the surface (usually a brownish foamy scum). By removing these impurities you will end up with a clear broth. Now to the bones add the chopped char-grilled shallots, onion, garlic and ginger, spice pouch, yellow rock sugar and fish sauce and then bring back to the boil. Now turn down the heat to low, cover the pan and let it simmer for about 3 hours. The broth will reduce during this time, which is what we want.
After 3 hours turn off the heat and then allow the broth to cool for about an hour. Now carefully pick out the pieces of brisket. Leave them to cool overnight. Now, strain the broth through a fine sieve into a smaller stock pot (I use a 5 litre one) and then allow it to rest overnight in the fridge.
Once rested in the fridge the stock will have a layer of solid fat on the surface. Strain carefully through a fine sieve lined with a double layer of muslin and then return the broth to your smaller (5 litre) stock pot. You should see a lovely translucent brown stock. Discard the muslin cloth as it should now contain all the filtered fat.
Now to prepare the rest of the ingredients: take the Asian basil, coriander, perilla leaves and Vietnamese mint and put in to a bowl of iced water. This will ‘crisp’ the herbs. Drain them just before serving. Heat the broth to just below a simmer and season with fish sauce if required. I added about 1 teaspoon. Thinly slice the cold boiled brisket (used to make the broth) discarding any ‘lumps’ of fat.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. In a large enough sieve place 200g of the noodles and blanch in the hot water for about 20 seconds. Loosen the noodles carefully during the blanching. Place the noodles in a serving bowl and repeat the process for the other serves.
Each serving bowl should now contain noodles. To each bowl add a good sprinkle of the finely chopped garlic chives, the bean sprouts, a few chopped spring onion pieces, a handful of sliced brisket and a few slices of the raw rib eye fillet. Now pour 3-4 ladles of hot broth into each bowl so that it looks like a soup. Serve immediately.
Prepare as a side a bowl containing the herbs and a dish containing the lemon/ lime quarters and sliced chilli. People can then add as much herb/ chilli/ lemon or lime to their soup. Remember a phở connoisseur first lightly stirs the noodles, then drinks a mouthful of the sweet broth.