Andrew Bui is a New York based food writer, recipe developer, and photographer.
Posted on: 02-2018
This recipe is featured in
Ask an Italian-American family how to make bolognese sauce and they’ll probably reply with why their own recipe is the best. Along the same vein, every Vietnamese family has their own version of phở they think is superior, due to both preference and pride. Many families pass their recipe for phở down through an oral rite of passage. My discussion with my parents involved scaling down a 170 liter (45 gallon) batch of broth to something more specific other than “Add the spices to your stock and simmer until it’s done.” The fact Phở 79’s soup was always so consistent despite such lax precision baffles me. Your soup will have a different flavor profile, fattiness, and depth depending on which combination of beef bones you use. Some apply an almost scientific methodology with the endless permutations possible, but buy whichever bones are available to you.
I know over six hours for soup sounds daunting, but this is the perfect weekend project to have in the background perfuming your home. It’d be foolish to proclaim this a definitive phở recipe (let alone an exact replica of what Phở 79 serves), so you have the liberty to adjust the amounts of salt, sugar, and spices. And maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t judge phở by its taste unless it’s spectacularly bad. When I’m twirling rice noodle and brisket onto my spoon, the most important thing to me isn’t whether it compares well to my mom’s – although that helps – but that I’m reminded of what it was like growing up with a bowl of soup as the source of the family’s well-being.
Prep50 min + cooling time
For the broth
1.5 kg (3 ½ pounds) beef bones*
450 grams (1 pound) yellow onions (about 1 large, or 2 small onions)
115 grams (4 ounces) ginger, or approximately a 6 inch stem
15 ml (1 tablespoon) vegetable oil
1 cinnamon stick, 3 inches (7.5 cm in length)
3 whole star anise
15 ml (1 tablespoon) fennel seeds
15 ml (1 tablespoon) coriander seed
15 ml (1 tablespoon) kosher salt
15 ml (1 tablespoon) granulated sugar
10 ml (2 teaspoons) msg (optional but highly recommended)
*If it’s possible, have your butcher saw your beef bones into manageable 7.6 10 cm (3-4 inch) pieces if they’re not already cut.
1. For the broth: Place the beef bones in a stockpot and cover with cold water. Turn the heat on high, and once the water comes to a boil, blanch for an additional 10 minutes, or until the bones have a clean, neutral smell when pulled from the boiling water. Drain the bones and allow to cool.
2. Preheat broiler to high. Cut both the onion and ginger in half, leaving the skins on, and rub them on all sides with vegetable oil. Place them both on a sheet pan and broil on the second-highest oven rack, flipping occasionally until both sides of the vegetables are deeply charred, about 15-20 minutes. You may have to remove the onions earlier since they tend to sit closer to the heating element and are more prone to burning.
3. When the bones are cool enough to handle, rinse them under cold water, scrubbing off any impurities or clots of blood to ensure a clear broth. Wrap the cinnamon, star anise, fennel, coriander, and cloves in a piece of cheesecloth and tie into a bundle with butchers’ twine. Place the bones in a clean pot, along with the spice bag, and charred pieces of onion and ginger. Season with the salt, sugar, and msg. (If you’re not using the msg, you may have to adjust with more salt and/or compensate with a few dashes of fish sauce.) Cover with 3.5 liters (1 gallon) of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for six hours. Taste and adjust for more salt or sugar before straining the stock. Reserve until you’re ready to serve.
4. To assemble: Place the rice noodles in a large bowl, and cover with hot tap water. Let soak for fifteen minutes until pliable, then drain. At this point they can be kept in the fridge until ready to use.
5. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, toss together the sliced white onion, chopped culantro, and sliced green scallions.
6. Blanch the soaked rice noodles for about 30-45 seconds but no longer. Divide the noodles between the bowls along with the thinly sliced steak, halved meatballs and onion and herb mixture. Bring the broth back up to a rolling boil and pour over the noodles and beef. Serve with a platter of the classic accoutrements.
Adapted and passed down through generations of the Tran family.
Andrew Bui is a New York based food writer, recipe developer, and photographer. After emigrating to the USA, his family opened Phở 79, one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in California. As he puts it: “My mom put me to work prepping vegetables and wiping down tables, but instead of serving as a warning to never pursue a demanding restaurant job, that experience instead sparked a lifelong passion for the kitchen.”