Being Vietnamese, I’ve had my share of Pho my entire life, both at restaurants and homemade. Its unmistakable aroma is instantly recognizable as soon as you open the door to a restaurant or someone’s house. The blend of spices combined with the savory broth always brings back memories of living at home and waking up on the weekends to my mom cooking it for breakfast. That’s right, Pho is traditionally eaten in the morning, but more of a brunch since it takes time to cook. Of course, the proliferation of the dish in America has made it a meal for any time of day, but more often eaten as lunch or dinner.
The origins of the soup are up for debate, but it is generally considered to have originated in Northern Vietnam as a much simpler product. Originally made with just broth, noodles, and beef (or sometimes chicken), it was kept simple and served at dusk and dawn to folks leaving or coming home from the workday. After the separation of Vietnam in 1954, the dish started to migrate to the South, which developed its own version of the soup. Southern Vietnamese added more sugar, herbs, sprouts, hoisin sauce, and lime, increasing the complexity of this once-simple dish and adding layers of flavors that are well-balanced.
And then in 1975, with the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. pulled out of the country, taking with them thousands of Vietnamese refugees, my family among them. We took nothing with us, except the clothes on our backs, a handful of photos my mom could grab, and the memories and knowledge of our homeland. This soup, even with its popularization and fusion with other cuisines in this country, will always be a reminder of our past and will always hold a special place in our home as a reminder to never forget where you came from and to pass on a little piece of my heritage to our children.
So that is what I’m presenting here, the version of Pho that I grew up with, similar in flavor to what my mom made, a traditional pho but with some very minor tweaks to suit my own taste. There’s nothing dramatically different here since Vietnamese cuisine is about balancing flavors, but this is the recipe I’ve landed on after many trials and errors.
So, let’s start with everything you’ll need. Below is the list of ingredients I use, and depending on your area, you may not be able to find some of it. If you have an Asian market near you, you should be able to find everything there.
- 3-4 lbs. Oxtail, or meaty beef bones
- Lean steak, such as top sirloin, tenderloin, or eye of round
- 1 Large hand of ginger
- 1 Large onion
- Star anise, 4-6 pieces
- 2 sticks of cinnamon
- 1/3 cup palm sugar (regular sugar if not available)
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- Rice noodles, either fresh or dried
- Thai basil (or any basil will also work)
- Bean sprouts
- Hoisin sauce
- Green onions
The broth is, of course, the star of the show here. It will require time and patience to ensure all the flavors are blended thoroughly and well-balanced. Start by filling your stockpot with water, saving room for the oxtails and beef bones. I use a 12-quart pot, so you may need to adjust ingredients based on the volume of soup you are looking to make. This typically makes enough for 6 large servings. Get your water heating and drop your meat and bones into the pot. Alternatively, I have also had success using beef short ribs in place of the oxtail, since it has a good mix of meat and bone content. You can even ask your grocery store butcher for beef broth bones to add in the mix to get that special flavor from bone marrow.
Get the pot up to a boil and then reduce the heat to let it simmer. You’ll be simmering for a few hours, so you will be topping off the water occasionally to keep your water level consistent and allow the flavors to come out of the meat and bones. As your broth simmers, you can start working on the other ingredients that go into it.
Grab a large skillet, the ginger, onion, cinnamon, and star anise. While the skillet is heating on the stove on med-high heat, peel and cut the onion in half and cut the ginger into thick slices. Throw this and the cinnamon sticks and star anise into the pan and cook until slightly browned. If your pan isn’t large enough for everything, do it in stages. The cinnamon and star anise will brown the quickest, so once done, just throw them into the pot. Flip the ginger pieces and onion halves over to cook both sides and then toss those in the pot as well. As another option for spices, I’ve added lemongrass that was sliced lengthwise and smashed a little to release its flavors.
At this point, your broth should be simmering, and you will start getting the dreaded scum on top of the water. There are differing opinions on how to handle this, but this my preference. I take a large cooking spoon and skim it off the top as much as possible. It’s okay to take some broth with you, there’s plenty in the pot. I do this about every 30 minutes throughout the cooking process and the last step shortly before serving will be to filter everything through some cheesecloth. Some say par-boiling the meat and bones is easier, but there is usually some residual scum that will come out.
The last two ingredients are palm sugar and the fish sauce. Just add those at any time during the simmer and adjust to taste as you see fit. You may find that you like it a little sweeter, so add more sugar. Or, if you don’t think it’s salty enough, I would recommend using regular salt instead of fish sauce, since the fish sauce can overpower the broth flavors.
I recommend simmering the broth for around four hours if you can. You could do it in three, which I’ve done, but the longer you can let it boil, the better it will taste. Once I’m ready to strain the broth, I take a large mesh ladle and remove the meat and bones into a bowl and the rest of the solids into a separate bowl. If you used oxtail, you can pull the meat off those once it’s cooled and eat it as a side or top your soup with it. The spices and vegetables are just discarded. Using a large colander covered with cheesecloth over a large bowl, I ladle the broth out of the pot through the cloth until all the broth has been filtered. I wash the pot and pour the broth back into it and turn the heat on to keep it barely simmering.
Also, while the broth is simmering, you can prepare the rest of the ingredients for your Pho. Put up a pot of water to boil the noodles and cook until desired firmness, depending on the type you purchased. Fresh noodles will cook a lot faster than dried ones, so check your noodles often when using fresh. Once cooked, it’s a good idea to rinse your noodles under hot water to remove the starch and prevent very sticky noodles. Slice your chosen steak as thin as possible, but don’t worry if it’s not paper-thin like the restaurants, it will still turn out fine. Wash the sprouts and basil and cut the lime into small wedges for serving. These items are traditionally placed on a large plate to be shared by everyone, along with the bottles of hoisin sauce and sriracha. Thinly slice the green onions to be used as toppings before serving.
Now that everything’s prepared, time to put it all together. Grab some beautiful bowls like these, fill them with as many noodles as you prefer and head over to the pot. If you’ve sliced your steak thin enough, you can just lay it on top of the noodles and pour your broth over it. I prefer to just use my chopsticks and place some slices in the ladle, dunk the ladle in pot to get some broth and pour broth over the noodles. Continue this based on the amount of steak you like and fill the bowl with broth until the noodles are covered. Sprinkle some green onions on top and serve with chopsticks and a soup spoon. Diners can add other toppings as they wish, but I personally like to add everything!
At my mom’s house, she serves the meaty oxtails on a plate with hoisin sauce for dipping. This would also work for any meaty bones you used, but obviously not for plain bones. Some restaurants also cook brisket and serve it sliced with the Pho, along with tendon and cartilage, which is traditionally known as Pho Dac Biet. This is how I typically order it at restaurants, but for a home cook who lives in a relatively small town, I like to keep it a little simpler since I’m the only one in my house that likes that other stuff.
So, there you have it, homemade Pho that isn’t too hard to make and should hold up against any pre-packaged or canned soup you can buy at the grocery store. Give it a try and let me know what you think. I hope that my joy for cooking shows through in this recipe and if you try it, remember some of its history and the great people I call my ancestors. I hope to someday teach our boys to cook this and that they love cooking enough to experiment with it and make it their own. Right now, they love it with just noodles and broth! They are also huge fans of our homemade ramen- check out the recipe here!
- 4 lbs Oxtail or other meaty bones
- 2 lbs Lean steak such as top sirloin, tenderloin, or eye of round
- 1 ea Large hand of ginger
- 1 ea Large onion
- 5 ea Star anise pieces
- 2 ea Sticks of cinnamon
- 1/3 cup Palm sugar (or regular sugar if not available)
- 1/4 cup Fish sauce
- 3 ea Thai basil bunches (or more depending on size)
- 2 packages Rice noodles (fresh or dried)
- 1 bag Mung bean sprouts, 1 large bag
- 1 bottle Hoisin sauce for serving
- 1 bottle Sriracha or other hot sauce for serving
- 1 ea Lime
- 1 bunch Green onions
- Place oxtail and bones in a large stockpot and fill with water. Heat pot over medium-high heat until boiling.
- Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and start preparing remaining soup ingredients.
- Heat a large skillet over med-high heat and grab the onion, ginger, star anise, and cinnamon.
- Place the star anise and cinnamon in the skittle to start roasting.
- Cut the ends off the onion, peel, and cut the onion in half. Place the onion in the skillet.
- Cut the ginger into thick slices and place in the skillet.
- Check the star anise and cinnamon and turn as needed to slightly blacken them. Once blackened, place in the soup pot.
- Turn the ginger and onion halves turn blacken both sides and place in the soup pot as well.
- As the broth is simmering, use a large spoon to skim the impurities off the top. Continue to do this throughout the simmering process.
- Add the palm sugar and fish sauce to the pot and stir well to blend. You can taste it now and adjust the flavor as needed.
- You'll want to simmer the soup for about 4 hours if you can. Be sure to top of the pot with water as it boils off.
- While waiting for the soup, you can prepare the rest of the ingredients and store it in the refrigerator for serving later.
- Slice your steak as thin as possible. This is typically done against the grain of the meat. Place in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
- Wash and drain the basil and bean sprouts and place them on a large plate together.
- Slice the lime into small slice for individual servings and place on the same plate as the basil and sprouts.
- Thinly slice the green onions, place in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
- Boil water for the rice noodles and cook according to directions or desired firmness.
- After you are done simmering the soup and have adjusted the taste to your liking, it's time to do the final filtering.
- Start by removing the meat and bones in a large bowl using a slotted spoon or mesh ladle. Save the meaty bones for serving.
- Scoop out the remainder of the solids into another bowl and discard after draining the liquid back into the pot.
- Using a large colander lined with cheesecloth, place it over a large bowl, ladle the soup into the colander and let it filter through the cloth. Continue until the pot is empty.
- Give the pot a good rinse and then transfer the soup back into the pot and turn the heat back on to keep it at a low simmer.
- Once you're ready to serve, place noodles into each bowl and grab the sliced steak and green onions.
- Using a ladle, place some of the steak into it and gently dunk it into the broth. Pour that scoop into the bowl and repeat with the desired amount of steak. Then top the bowl with broth until the noodles are covered.
- Sprinkle some green onions on top for garnish, if desired, and serve at the table with the basil, sprouts, lime, and sauces.
- Our family typically serves the oxtail on a communal plate with a mixture of hoisin sauce and sriracha for dipping.