During my visit to San Diego this past Mother’s Day, Ba Ngoai taught me how to make pho bo from scratch. It was a two day affair, one day dedicated to purchasing groceries and another to preparing the soup. Shopping and cooking on the same day is an exhausting endeavor for a senior citizen, so I was happy to divide the tasks in order to finally conquer Vietnam’s most iconic noodle soup.
The leg bones that we had procured the day before were soaking on the stove when I arrived at her house on Sunday afternoon. She switched the flame on high soon after, parboiling the limbs to get rid of impurities. Next, she instructed me to turn off the heat, grab ahold of the pot, and follow her into the backyard. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but what Grandma says goes in my family.
In the backyard, we dumped the scummy water into a ditch of sorts that my grandfather had constructed for this very purpose, making sure not to lose any bones in the process. We then squatted Saigon-style, turned on the garden hose, and rinsed each nub under cold water. It seems that Grandma has a fear of clogging up the kitchen sink, hence this unorthodox, old world technique. After the bones had been thoroughly cleaned, we brought them inside the kitchen and proceeded to make the broth.
When it came time to char the ginger and onion, ingredients essential for perfuming and coloring the soup, Grandma reached into her bag of tricks once more and employed a beat up tin can that was once filled with bamboo shoots. The can’s tight and intensely hot compartment yielded an evenly charred onion with neither fuss nor mess. Grandma’s kitchen genius knows no bounds.
The recipe that follows for my grandmother’s pho bo has been adjusted ever-so-slightly to reflect the sensibilities of modern cooks like myself. While I’d love to have a drainage ditch dedicated to soup scum in my backyard, our current one-bedroom in Pasadena doesn’t allow for such luxuries. Additionally, I’ve swapped out the tin can for a flame-licked grill in order to char the aromatics. While I finessed some of Grandma’s cooking techniques, the soul and flavor of her pho hasn’t been fiddled with one bit. After all, perfection shouldn’t be messed with.
I had an incredible afternoon shadowing Grandma and learning how to construct a well-balanced and deeply satisfying pho. I hope you can taste the love.
- 5 pounds beef bones with marrow (leg bones, oxtails, etc.)
- 4-5 ounces fresh ginger root
- 1 onion
- 1 daikon, peeled, trimmed, and cut in half or thirds
- 5 star anise
- 8 cloves
- 2 3-inch long cinnamon sticks
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 5 tablespoons salt, divided
- 4 tablespoons fish sauce
- 4 tablespoon sugar, divided
- 1/2 tablespoon monosodium glutamate (optional)
For toppings and garnish
- 2 pounds beef plate
- 1 pound beef tripe
- 2 pounds beef top round or eye round, sliced thinly
- 1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 bunch scallions, chopped
- 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
- Fresh herbs such as Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander, etc.
- Limes, cut into wedges
- Fresh beansprouts, trimmed
- Hoisin sauce
- Chili sauce
- 2 to 3 pounds “rice stick,” prepared according to directions on package
Dry roast the star anise, anise seeds, cloves, and cinnamon sticks in a non-stick skillet over medium heat until fragrant. Set aside to cool.
Once the spices have cooled, transfer to a muslin spice sachet and tie the bag closed tightly.