Pho, a brothy soup of rice noodles, veggies and meat, was created about 100 years ago in northern Vietnam. It’s proper pronunciation sounds like “fur” without the “r”—it rhymes with “duh”—although it’s often mistakenly called “faux.”
Linguistically, “pho” is probably a twist on the French feu, meaning fire—as in Pot-au-feu, or “pot on the fire,” a soup that may have influenced pho during France’s colonization of Vietnam. While commonly interpreted on menus as “Vietnamese beef noodle soup,” it’s appropriate that “fire” might be the literal translation for this unique brand of wet heat.
I first fell for pho one hot night in Bangkok, on a corner where an alley joins a street and several food carts were serving nothing but Thai-style pho, or Guoi Tiao, which translates to “noodle soup.”
Charmed by the fragrant smell, I stopped on the pho corner and took a seat on a folding chair. A vendor called out to me. I nodded. She brought a caddy of sauces to my table, and a plate piled with bean sprouts, chili peppers, a lime wedge, basil, cilantro, mint and green onions. This side salad represents an evolution of traditional pho that started in Hanoi, where pho was transplanted by northern hill folk fleeing south, away from the communists. The salad-in-your-soup action is one of the best things about pho.
The vendor set a huge bowl before me, which steamed my face as I stripped leaves from herb-stalks and added them to my bowl along with bean sprouts, a squeeze of lime and a smattering of the sauces at my disposal, which were hot, sour, sweet, spicy and fishy.
As I snorkeled through that soup I became aware that the back of my neck was cool, thanks to the evaporation of the sweat that had gathered there as I slurped and sweated. When my pho was gone, I noticed that my nose was running and my shirt was drenched.
The hot liquid I swallowed and the steam I inhaled heated and hydrated my body, while the chili opened my arteries and got the adrenaline flowing, giving me a refreshing, cleansing sweat. To this day, pho remains one of my souper-secret weapons of summertime, along with cold soups like gazpacho, vichyssoise and cherry soup.
Pho has proven extremely popular and can be found worldwide. In the United States there are chains of Vietnamese beef noodle soup restaurants, such as “Pho King,” “Pho Huang,” “Pho 2000” and my favorite, “What the Pho?” They have large menus featuring many variations on pho, like beef tendon, or slices of raw, tender cuts of beef that cook in your bowl at the table. There’s also chicken, seafood and pork, to name a few.
I’m aware of two Missoula restaurants that serve it: Vietnam Noodle Express has the most traditional pho experience with several choices of beef served with a big side salad. The Hmong-owned Thai Spicy has a beautiful Laotian-influenced beef pho made with chicken stock.
If you decide to make pho at home instead of trying these local restaurants, summer provides a perfect opportunity between the cleansing hot flashes and the myriad of veggie options for your bowl. Here’s a basic recipe for traditional tough-beef pho. Those who want alternate meats or vegetarian options can modify accordingly.
I often use beef bones for the broth and deer or elk for the meat. Par-boil the bones for 10 minutes to release the scum and particles; dump that water and put the bones in 6 quarts clean water. This step keeps your broth delicate and clear. Bring the pot to a boil and then simmer with 8 star anise pods (either whole or in pieces), 1 tablespoon cardamom pods, a three-inch cinnamon stick, six cloves, 4 tablespoon fish sauce, 1 tablespoon salt, a half-cup of sugar and one pound of tough meat, cut in two-inch chunks.
Andrea Nguyen, who’s written extensively on pho for the San Jose Mercury News, and whose mother is from North Vietnam, waxes on the importance of adding char-roasted onions and ginger in the broth. Slowly cook two medium yellow onions and a 4-inch piece of ginger over an open flame until lightly burned—charred, blistered and fragrant. Allow them to cool, remove the blackened parts under the faucet or with a knife, and add whole to the broth.
When the meat is falling-apart tender, remove it. The stock should simmer for three hours total.
Close to serving time, blanch some rice noodles (10–20 seconds) in boiling water. Rinse noodles to remove starch, drain and set aside. Prepare side salads, with lime wedges, bean sprouts, chopped scallions, sliced or crushed chili peppers, and the leafy herbs of your choice. You should have hoisin sauce, black pepper, and red chili sauce—such as the ubiquitous Sriracha (the red squeeze bottle with the rooster on it)—on hand for additional flavor adjustments, especially if you want to experience a true bowl of fire hot flash.
Arrange the noodles and meat in bowls along with fresh raw veggies, like thin-sliced carrots, peas, onions or broccoli. Ladle the broth over noodles, and serve.
It will make you smile and sweat, and it’s a meal you won’t quickly pho-get.