There are noodle soups and there is pho, Vietnam's richly complex gift to the world.
Pho (say: fuh) may prompt wisecracks and punny tee shirts, judging by those we saw at Ho Chi Minh City's Ben Thanh Market during a recent trip. But in Vietnam and at Vietnamese restaurants around the world, there is artistry in its creation.
From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), chefs at high-end restaurants, cooks at chain eateries and street vendors, those serving customers who slurp the restorative brew while perched on child-size plastic stools, understand pho's power.
"When you eat a bowl of soup in Vietnam, you experience almost everything, culinarily speaking, that the Vietnamese value," chef Charles Phan writes in his book, "Vietnamese Home Cooking" (Ten Speed Press, $35).
Those values? A stock that's "never thickened," a mix of textures plus aromatics, often fresh herbs, toasted garlic and chopped green onions. And while Phan notes that Vietnamese cooks prepare both brothy meal-openers and full-meal noodle soups, it is the noodle soup called pho that is the worldwide star.
And breakfast in Vietnam.
Each morning, despite the warm sultry weather, we slurped our way through huge bowls of comforting herb-blessed pho. As a child in Da Lat, Phan recalls awakening each day to street vendors selling bowls of pho.
"If you're having a bowl of hot soup, it just really kind of balances you to start your day," Phan told us during a phone chat from San Francisco, home to his Slanted Door family of restaurants. "I just always feel calm and rejuvenated when I drink broth."
The deeply-flavored pho broth paired with noodles and meat — usually pho bo (beef) or pho ga (chicken) — plus garnishes, soothes and satisfies at breakfast (or lunch or supper).
"When people walk by, when you smell the aroma from the pot, you can tell whether it's beef or chicken," Vu Khang, a chef at Hoa Tuc restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City and instructor for its cooking classes, told us. "You know it's beef pho when you smell cardamon, cinnamon, star anise and cloves."
Also influencing the stock's flavor, says Phan: "We don't roast the bone, we blanch the bone. ... And there's none of the sweetness that comes from celery and carrot. Instead, it comes from a roasted onion and ginger, star anise and the other spices."
There are regional variations, of course, as well as from cook to cook. Khang, for example, considers the broth in Hanoi lighter in color than that served in Ho Chi Minh City, and Phan finds cooks in the north use fewer spices and varieties of meats.
Whatever the variations, pho makes a delicious meal. It may not replace oatmeal at your breakfast table. Then again, slurping oatmeal isn't OK but, as Phan says, slurping pho is perfectly fine.
Beef noodle soup (Pho bo)
Adapted from Charles Phan's "Vietnamese Home Cooking." The aromatic stock is often flavored with star anise, cinnamon, clove and cardamom. Pho soup bases can be found in some supermarkets. If you don't have access to such a product (and don't have time for the 5-plus hours needed to make pho stock) consider simmering a light beef broth (hold the carrots and celery) with a small cinnamon stick, a whole clove, a star anise pod and a cardamon pod. To make slicing the raw beef top round paper-thin, freeze the meat for 15 minutes, slice thin then pound thinner with a meat mallet.
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 50 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
1 pound beef brisket