Tuesday, 4 January 2011


New Year has arrived, the season of de-tox.  We all crave exercise, fresh air and simple food, an end to butter and cream.  Resolution is in the air.  So, we will have pho bo tonight, alongside a crisp South-East Asian salad.  And green tea.  No wine.

What better way to revive flagging taste buds while keeping the calories at bay than a bowl of hot, sweet and spicy pho bo – the national dish of Vietnam.  This zingy beef soup is light enough to restore your vigour on a hot, humid morning in Hanoi yet substantial enough to warm you in the depths of an English winter.  Whether in Northern Hanoi, or Saigon in the South, the Vietnamese are obsessed with this dish. It is everywhere: mobile pho stalls appear on street corners or on boats on rivers that act as markets or highways, anywhere where passing customers can squat and slurp.  There are also fast-food-style restaurants that specialise in pho; Bill Clinton visited one, Pho 2000, in Saigon, during his historic presidential visit. These joints tend to offer the “new” pho – slightly less earthy with fillet steak slivers rather than the chewier beef that devotees of “old” pho relish.  Real pho is street food.

What makes a good bowlful?

Well, the street vendors carry around two large pots, one full of aromatic beef stock, the other of hot water.  Scrappy fires of paper or kindling, often spurred on by small electric fans, quickly get the temperature up to scalding, and add a smokiness to the brew as well; posher establishments might have a small calor gas ring. Then, deftly, a ladle of broth is splashed into a bowl, followed quickly by fresh rice noodles that have been briskly dipped into the boiling water.  Wafer thin strips of beef are stirred in, followed by a slug of nuoc mam (fish sauce).  Chilli, herbs, lime juice and, sometimes, bean sprouts are added to taste before the whole bowlful is devoured at speed.

Pho Bo

These quantities would serve six, so adapt to suit.  And of course, all these measurements would be disregarded by the Vietnamese who do it by eye and availability – and following the family’s traditional recipe. They would also make the broth with beef bones and a pig’s trotter, unlike us.

We bought all these ingredients locally in Mill Road, Cambridge:
Al Amin, 100 - 102 Mill Road, Cambridge (www.al-amin.com);
Seoul Plaza, 91 - 93 Mill Road, Cambridge (http://www.koreafoods.co.uk/en/retail_04.php);  
Cho Mee Chinese Supermarket, 108 - 110 Mill Road, Cambridge;
Andrew Northrop Butchers, 114 Mill Road, Cambridge.

To Make the Broth
1 tbs     vegetable oil
500g     stewing beef cut into small cubes
1 tsp     palm sugar or soft brown sugar
2           large onions, chopped and browned
50g       galangal or ginger, sliced thinly
1 tsp     salt 
2           star anise
4cm      cassia bark or a cinnamon stick

To Finish the Pho Bo
300g     fillet steak (tail end) sliced as thinly as possible
1tbs      Thai Fish sauce
400g     rice noodles (Banh Pho)
4           spring onions, sliced into fine rings

To Add to your Bowl
             lime wedges to squeeze
             roughly chopped herbs (mint, Thai basil)
             red chilli sliced thinly
             bean sprouts.

To Make the Broth
In a good-sized saucepan, heat the oil with the spoon of sugar (or palm sugar) and fry the beef until it is caramelised: keep the temperature high and stir constantly.  
Cover with water.  Add the browned onions, sliced ginger, salt, star anise and cassia bark or cinnamon stick and bring to the boil.  Let it simmer for 1 hour, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface.
After 1 hour, remove the stewing beef and keep it to one side.  Strain the broth and return it to the pan. Discard the vegetables and spices.

To Finish the Pho Bo
While the broth is cooking, marinate the beef in the fish sauce for 30 mins.
Boil water for the noodles and cook as per instructions on the packet.
Bring the broth back to a simmer and return the stewing beef to it.
Then ladle the meaty broth into 6 bowls, adding some strained hot noodles, slivers of raw steak and spring onions. Stir it all together and serve.

Every pho addict recommends a slightly different combination of accompaniments to make up the perfect bowl; you should, however, always add chilli, lime juice and Thai basil.

It is considered polite to raise the bowl to your lips and to slurp.  Enjoy.

And “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!” – or Happy New Year as they say in Hanoi.

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