This one-dish meal is Vietnamese food culture in a bowl. Phở, pronounced as “fuh,” not “foe” pairs delicate rice noodles with broth scented with star anise, cardamom, cloves, cassia, charred ginger and onions. The beef may be slow-simmered gelatinous beef tendon, poached beef brisket shavings, or raw beef sliced so thin that it cooks almost instantly in the hot broth.
In keeping with the Vietnamese tradition of finishing dishes at the table, each diner adds his own garnishes. In Vietnam it is usually simply sliced chilies, basil and some lime wedges. In the United States there seems to be (as with most everything) a necessity to add even more. Piles of Asian basil, bean sprouts, green chili rings, fresh lime wedges adorn the tables. Why doesn’t the cook just add the vegetables to the soup? A couple reasons: First, it allows the guest to adjust the herbs, spices and seasonings that they want. Secondly, timing is everything. Vietnamese natives add bean sprouts and herbs to their Phở regularly over the course of the meal. This ensures that the sprouts are always crisp, and that the herbs don’t infuse the broth with too much of their flavor.
Phở is served with side sauces. In Vietnam a chili sauce (tưóg ớt/đõ) is at the ready to spice up the broth but in the US somehow two foreign sauces are always served. Hoisin sauce (from China) and Sriracha hot chili sauce (from Thailand). These can go directly to the broth with a squeeze of lime, or they can be used as dipping sauces for the dish’s slices of meat, vegetables and noodles (my preference is not to add these to the broth, they can demolish the nuances of flavor in the long simmered broth).
© 2008 Robert Danhi. All rights reserved.