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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Phở Bò (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)

I am so excited to launch a new, fresh look of my blog. As you may have guessed, the 3 girls represent my two darlings and me. A closer look reveals that my older daughter has a mint leaf hair clip while the younger one is wearing a red chili pepper. I'm sporting a star anise hair clip. Throw us in front a stack of cinnamon stick backdrop and you have the new look of The Spices of Life.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to my dear friend Ann who takes the precious time from her busy schedule as a mother, a wife, and a graphic designer to help me design this cool new look for the blog.

I will dedicate this blog of the quintessential Vietnamese noodle dish called PHO (pronounced fuh) to Ann.

Pho is a humble classic delicious Vietnamese noodle soup that must be served hot with the accompaniment of the classic herbs Thai basil, culantro (ngo gai) and bean sprout. Pho is my favorite. My bowl of Pho is always empty as I love to slurp every drop of the broth. I enjoy all types of Pho:

Pho Ga (Chicken Noodle Soup), 
Pho Bo ( Beef Noodle Soup), 
Pho Bo Vien (Beef Meatball Noodle Soup), 
Pho Duoi Bo (Oxtail Noodle Soup), last but not least, 
Pho Dac Biet is the combination of any parts of the beef such as rare slice of steak, brisket, flank, tendon, stripe and meatball,etc...

The three elements that make up of a bowl of flavorful Pho are the al dente rice noodles called Banh Pho, the flavorful, light but highly aromatic broth and last but not least, the meat. However, the pho broth is what makes the soup and gives it the distinct character. There’s not necessarily only one way to make pho broth, but a good pho broth must follow certain rules and standards.

Despite cooking Pho Ga or Pho Bo (Chicken Noodle Soup or Beef Noodle Soup), the essential ingredients that create the distinctive wonderful aroma of broth are charred ginger and onion; a bag of spices filled with star anise (hoa hồi), cinnamon stick (quế), whole cloves (đinh hương), fennel seed (hột ngò khô) and amomum costatum (thảo quả khô).

I eliminate fish sauce in Pho broth as the fish sauce will produce the sour/bitter taste and cloud it. Instead, I serve fish sauce on a side. The white radish will be add to the broth toward the end to help keep the broth clear.

The most common way to cook Vietnamese beef noodle soup is simmering the beef marrow bones and beef knuckle bones for at least 3 hours until the marrow in the bones dissolve into the broth. Most of the time, I like to have oxtail, meatball and thinly slices of filet migon or rib eyes in my bowl of Pho. (Majority of restaurants use beef round eye but it's not my favorite as the meat is tough though very lean and flavorful.) So I simmer ox tail along with beef bones as my husband and my girls love the texture of ox tail meat. Pho broth is flavorful when MSG is added. However, consuming MSG in food can trigger side effects including headaches and other symptoms for some people. Luckily I don't have problem with MSG but just to be caution I avoid using MSG in my cooking. Instead, I use the mushroom vegetable seasoning.

Cooking a pot of Pho seems time-consuming but it's definitely worth it. In no time, your family and friends will gather around the kitchen nook and enjoy hot steaming bowls of tasty and delicious Pho. Don't be surprise to hear slurping - lots of slurping. It's a sign that your Pho is second to none. So slurp away!
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For Broth
2 pounds Ox Tails, optional, washed
4 pounds Marrow and Beef Knuckle Bones (3 pounds of beef bones if used with ox tails), washed
2 tablespoons Coriander
2 tablespoons Dried Fennel Seed
1/2 tablespoon Whole Cloves
1 Amomum Costatum (thao qua)
4 Star Anise 
1 Stick Cinnamon
1 Onion, peeled
1 piece Fresh Ginger, about 3 inches, washed, cut in half lengthwise, lightly smashed with the flat side of a knife to release the flavor
1 medium White Radish (củ cải trắng), cut into 3 inch pieces
6 Liters of Water, (close to 6 quarts) 
3 tablespoons Salt
1 1/2 tablespoons Mushroom Seasoning (gia vi rau cai), substitute MSG if preferred but add less MSG
1 tablespoon Yellow Rock Sugar aka Lump Sugar

Noodle and Meat
3-4 bags Rice Noodle (Pho)
2 pounds Filet Mignon or Beef Rib Eye, thinly sliced
1-2  pound Beef Tendon (gân), optional, washed thoroughly with salt
1 pound Beef Stripe (sách), optional, washed thoroughly with salt
1 piece (about 2 pounds) of Beef Flank (thịt nạm), optional, washed thoroughly with salt
Vietnamese Meatballs, optional, click here for recipe (also available at Asian market)

Basil Leaves
Saw-Leaf Herb Leaves (Ngo Gai), optional
Bean Sprout
A bunch Spring Onion, finely chopped the green part, keep the white part
Split the White Part of green onion into quarters
A bunch Cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 Onion, thinly slice with a slicer
Lime, cut into wedges
5 Thai chilies or 1 serrano chili, cut into thin rings
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
 Charring Onion and Ginger
Place onion and ginger on a stove burner or grill at medium heat. Char until the skin is burnt and is fragrant and the ginger and onion slightly cook. Let it cool down a little bit, then rinse to remove the charcoal. Set aside.
Cooking Broth

In a large stockpot, bring 6 liters of water to a boil.

In a second pot, place the bones and oxtail and add water to cover and bring to a boil.   Boil vigorously for about 4 minutes to allow impurities to be released.  This step is just to get rid of the smell of old bones and also to keep the broth clear.

Discard the water and rinse the bones and oxtail under cold water then add to the first pot of boiling water along with the beef flank if used, charred onion and ginger.  Bring to boil over high heat, uncovered, then reduce the heat to a gently simmer.  Often time, use a fine strainer to skim any scum and fat that rises to surface.

If you simmer the broth in the same pot that you just parboiled the bones, oxtail and beef flank,  make sure to wash pot to remove any residue before returning the ingredients to the pot.
Cooking Stripe (sách)

In a small pot, bring 1/2 cup of vinegar and 4 cups of water and half of an onion to a boil (vinegar eliminates the smell of stripe).  Add stripe and bring it back to boil. Remove and rinse with cold water. Cut into smalll stripes. Set aside. 
Cooking Beef Tendon (gân)

In a small pot, bring a tablespoon of salt, 2 tablespoons of sugar and half an onion, tendon and enough water (about an inch above the tendon) to a boil. Slow cook it for 2-3 hours until tender. Be sure to strain the white form often. Remove tendon and rinse with cold water. Cut into thin pieces.
Preparing Spice Bag

Place spice in a frying pan and roast over medium heat for a minute or until the fragrant released.  Pour spice into a cloth bag  or wrap it up in a cheesecloth and tight it tightly.  Set aside.

Back to Cooking Broth

After the broth is simmering for 2 hours total,  check beef flank and oxtail to see if  tender.   Remove beef flank and oxtail.  Soak  in cold water for a bit to prevent the meat turn dark color. Drain and place beef flank in the freezer or fridge to keep it cold. This will make it easier to thinly slice the beef.
Drain and set oxtail aside.

Thinly slice beef flank when it cools down.

Continue simmering the broth with the remaining bones for another hour (3 hours total), then add white radish, spice bag, salt, yellow rock sugar and  mushroom seasoning.   Continue simmering the broth for another 1/2 hour.  Remove spice bag, ginger, white radish and onion. Leaving the spice bag in the broth too long will develop too strong of a licorice flavor; onion and white radish will fall apart which clouds the broth.  Skim as necessary.  The broth can be used after simmering for  at least 3 and half hours.  Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.  

If desired, strain the pho broth through fine strainer for clear broth. I usually skip this step. (by this time, there's limited patience and can't wait to eat Pho)  
The Meat Line Up

Thinly slice raw steak
Thinly slice beef flank
Meatballs (click here for recipe)
Preparing Banh Pho (Pho Noodles)

Remove noodles from bags. Wash and soak noodles in hot sink water for a couple minutes. Rinse. Set aside.  I like this method as it's quick to prepare the noodle and also to keep the noodle from being too soft.  I personally don't like my noodle too soft.  

But if you want you noodle softer, fill saucepan with water and bring to boil. When you're ready to serve Pho, for each bowl, use a strainer to blanch a portion of noodles. As soon as noodle sink into the boil water (5 seconds), remove strainer from the water, jiggle the strainer to let water drain back into saucepan. Empty noodle into bowls.  

Another way to prepare noodle is to wash and rinse noodle. Set aside.  When you're ready to serve Pho, add a portion of noodle in a bowl and microwave it for 30 seconds.   

Preparing Garnishes

Place bean sprout, basil, saw-leaf herb on a plate.
In a bowl, mix together green onion, white part, sliced onion and cilantro.
Soak thinly slices of onion in the mixture of water, vinegar and sugar, optional.
Place lime wedges and chilies on a plate. 


To serve, place the noodles in a bowl. Place a few slices of the raw steak and flank on the noodles. Bring the broth to a rolling boil; ladle about 2 to 3 cups into each bowl. The broth will cook the raw beef instantly. (If you prefer to keep the broth clear, bring a small pot of water to a boil, dip the raw steaks and immediately transfer to the noodle bowl). Add oxtail, tendon, flank, meatball as desired. Garnish with mixed herbs. Sprinkle or grind on some black pepper. Garnish the bowl with bean sprouts, basil and saw-leaf herb, chilies, lime juice and enjoy immediately while it's still steaming hot. 

If you like, remove all the beef bone (xương súp) from the broth pot and serve on a side as an appetizer.