Ask most chefs or foodies their favourite meal and they won’t mention a 14-course degustation menu at a three-star restaurant. Many will favour a gorgeous plain steak, some yearn for stews or fry-ups, but over recent years one particular dish has spread like a drug through the food subculture, a dish so simple, so deliciously comforting and so flat-out addictive that even hardened, classically trained Francophile professional Tony Bourdain once said, “I would jerk a rusty butter knife across my best friend’s throat for this.”
Pho exists in a cloud of myth and mystery. It is pronounced (approximately) “fuhr”, but as Vietnamese vowels can vary through five different tones you’ll need to voice it with a questioning uplift to sound authentic. You could say it was a beef noodle soup and at root it is, but though it reflects Chinese soups, in the same way that much Vietnamese culture reflects ancient Chinese influences, it’s actually a comparatively modern development originating around a century ago, near Hanoi, and at the height of French influence. The base of rice noodles is pure Chinese but any trained French chef would immediately recognise the stages of cooking the broth as the classic method for a clear stock or consommé – pure Escoffier. It is even suggested that the word “pho” might derive from the French pot-au-feu, a theory that stands up in a culinary sense if not an etymological one.
Pho is impossible to make in small quantities, which might account for its popularity both as a street food and at family gatherings. It developed warm associations with home and family life that became vitally important to refugee families leaving during and immediately after the Vietnam war.
I took my pho-making masterclass with Uyen Luu, whose family fled Vietnam in the 1980s and settled in London’s Vietnamese community in Hackney. She’s a filmmaker who blogs brilliantly about Vietnamese food (fernandezandleluu.co.uk) as well as running a pop-up restaurant in her studio and teaching Vietnamese cookery classes.
It’s an amazing experience dancing around my own kitchen in response to Uyen’s quiet but assertive instructions. Pho is important to her and I’m not going to be allowed to mess up. I also hear the story of her family, and the reasons behind each ingredient and step in the recipe.
For a western cook it’s an educational experience building a pho. Starting from the clean flavours of the stock you’re forced to taste and think about each of the unusual additions – the unexpected sweetness of the rock sugar, a citrus tang, liquorice and aniseed notes – and balance them all against something that’s genuinely challenging to most of us: that feral, slightly putrescent honk of fish sauce.
You learn as you go, developing the balance, and the result approaches the sublime. Obviously any good consommé would have an umami richness but add to that a harmonious ensemble of fresh fragrances and it almost defies description. You could cook pho in a galvanised bucket over a charcoal burner in a backstreet or in the best-equipped kitchen, but because it’s an experience in building and tasting rather than a simple recipe, it will always be astonishing if enough care is applied.
As well as the taste, it’s that heavy payload of culture, history and love that can’t help but appeal, and it’s that which makes pho a cult among those who love to cook and love to eat.
Tim Hayward is editor of Fire & Knives, http://fireandknives.com/
Ingredients (serves 10 for a main course)
Half an oxtail chopped into chunks
3 beef ribs
1 litre clear chicken stock
Two peeled onions
Two peeled thumb-sized nubs of ginger
Small handful of star anise
1 peeled carrot
1 chunk of peeled mooli
1 tsp fennel seed, 1 tsp coriander seed, 1 tsp black peppercorns, 1 tsp cassia bark or cinnamon stick, all tied in muslin
3 Crabs brand fish sauce (nuoc mam)
50g rock sugar
A small piece of beef fillet
Coriander, Thai basil, Thai parsley
Sriracha chilli sauce, chopped chillies
1. Fill a large pot with water, bring to the boil and drop in the pieces of oxtail and rib. Allow to simmer for a couple of minutes and then drain the meat and wash it in cold water. Put the meat back in to the clean pot, add the chicken stock and top up with cold water. Bring back to just below the boil and allow to simmer extremely gently. Add the spice bag, the carrot and the mooli.
2. Heat up a griddle and, without adding oil, scorch and burn the surfaces of the onions and ginger pieces. Once there are charred black patches, drop them into the stock and then scorch the star anise pods and add them too. Finally add a couple of big lumps of rock sugar.
3. Now comes the interesting bit. Simmer for at least an hour, skimming regularly and tasting constantly. You can add more rock sugar for sweetness, spoon out the star anise if they become too predominant for your taste and begin adding salt. Be moderate with the salt, though, and instead add the vital fish sauce in great healthy splashes once the stock is beginning to taste near perfect. Remove it from the heat.
4. To serve: blanch your noodles in hot water until they’re soft and place them in the bottom of deep bowls. Cut the fillet steak into transparently thin slices, drape them over the noodles with a handful of chopped spring onions and coriander. Pour over the hot stock, which will cook the fillet perfectly and add a few juicy pieces of the stock meat.
5. At the table: diners should have chopsticks, a large spoon and free run of the trimmings and sauces. Tear up the Thai basil, coriander and the Thai parsley and scatter over the soup, add chopped chillies and chilli sauce to taste and squeeze in the lime juice.