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A Cooking Adventure with Thom

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Vietnamese Beef Soup

(Pho Tai)

Thom Hackett
Years of Vietnamese Restaurants and Recipe Searching

Serves: 6

Pho Tai (Vietnamese Beef Soup)

This is the national dish of Vietnam; it's Pho (usually pronounced as "foe" by most Americans, but in Vietnamese it comes out sounding something like "fuh?" with a rising tone).  It's beloved by just about everyone both in Vietnam and in the many Vietnamese communities in America.  It is integral to Vietnamese cuisine.

My first bowl of Pho was in a Can Tho, Vietnam and I bought it from a street vendor.  I noticed all the locals eating it so I had to give it a go.  It was a wonderful experience for me and I fell in love with this dish.  In Viet Nam it was mainly eaten at breakfast but I like it at all times of the day.  I was never sure what meat was in it but it looked like beef.  This was a mystery for me because I could not imagine where the beef came from; I did not see any cows.  I saw water buffalo but they were work animals so I don't think it came from that source.  Of course, it didn't matter to me because it was a wonderfully taste sensation for me and has remained so throughout the years hence.  I eat this dish often during the time I was in Viet Nam.

Vietnamese cuisine is another great gift to this country from immigrant peoples, and it is one of my very favorite Asian cuisines, perhaps my very favorite (hmm, maybe a tie with Thai?).


For The Broth:
4 pounds beef oxtails, cut into 1˝ to 2-inch pieces, trim fat
2 gallons cold water, approximately
1 piece ginger root, 3-inch unpeeled
1 large onion, halved and unpeeled
cup fish sauce, Vietnamese Nuoc Mam
1 tablespoon salt
8 whole star anise
5 whole cloves
1 stick cinnamon, 3-inch piece broken into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
3 bay leaves
1 pound rice noodles, medium or thick
1 pound fillet mignon, trimmed of fat and very thinly sliced

For The Garnish:

2 bunches scallions, thinly sliced
˝ cup cilantro leaves, whole, roughly chopped
˝ cup basil, fresh, Thai Basil, regular Basil if Thai unavailable
1˝ cups mung bean sprouts
3 large limes, cut into wedges
Hoisin sauce
chili sauce, Sriracha Red Chili Sauce
chili garlic paste, optional
chili peppers, Sliced, optional

Cooking Method

Put the oxtails into a large stockpot and add enough cold water to cover the bones by 4 inches (about 2 gallons). 

  1. Bring to a full boil and then immediately lower the heat to a simmer. 

  2. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface. 


  1. Put the ginger and onion halves on a greased baking sheet and place the sheet under the broiler, about 3 inches below the flame. 

  2. Char the ginger and onion until they're lightly blackened, about 10 to 15 minutes. 

  3. Turn them over halfway through cooking. 

  4. When they're cool enough to handle, rinse the onion and ginger under cold running water, using a knife to scrape away some of the charred surface. 

  5. Cut the ginger into 3 pieces and add it and the onion halves to the simmering broth, along with 1-tablespoon salt and the fish sauce (which doesn't smell as bad when it's added to other ingredients and cooked).

Put the star anise, cloves, and pieces of cinnamon stick in a small skillet and toast them over medium heat. 

  1. Shake the skillet and turn the spices a couple of times until they're slightly darkened (3 to 4 minutes) and until you smell the aroma of their essential oils being released (which smells really good) .

  2. Make a sachet d'épices -- put the toasted spices and fennel seeds in a coffee filter (or a large tea ball) and tie the bundle with a long piece of kitchen twine. 

  3. Add the sachet and the bay leaves to the broth.

  4. Tie the end of the twine the pot handle -- that makes it easy to retrieve it after cooking.

  5. Let the broth simmer uncovered for 4 hours, occasionally skimming any additional scum that may form.  (This will make the house smell incredible -- the aroma will waft into every room.  This makes Pho a great dish to make when you're spending a leisurely day at home, or if you need to do housecleaning).

  6. After 4 hours remove the sachet, onion, bay leaves and ginger from the pot and discard. 

  7. Remove the oxtails from the pot and set aside.

  8. Let the broth continue to simmer gently.

  9. When the meat has cooled, pull it off the bones and chop it into small bits. 

  10. Reserve the meat and return the bones to the broth.  (This step will extract all the gelatin from the bones, making a very full-bodied stock, as well as extra flavor.)

  11. Continue simmering uncovered for about 1 more hour. 

  12. Add more salt or fish sauce to taste as needed. 

  13. By this time the broth should be incredibly flavorful and aromatic. 

As the broth nears completion...

  1. Soak the rice noodles in cold water for at least 20 minutes. 

  2. Nicely arrange the sliced scallions, cilantro, parsley, Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and sliced chilies on plates -- these garnishes will be served along with the Pho.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the drained rice noodles. 

  1. Give the noodles a quick stir and cook until tender but firm, about 1 minute only (don't let the noodles overcook, or you'll be left with a pile of stringy gummy paste).

  2. Drain the noodles immediately. 

  3. Warm 6 large bowls by rinsing them with hot water and divide the noodles among the bowls.

To prepare the beef (fillet Mignon)...

  1. Wrap it in plastic wrap.

  2. Freeze until partially frozen, about 1 hour. 

  3. Cut the beef across the grain into paper-thin slices about 2 inches wide by 3-inches long. 

  4. Set aside.

Just before serving...

  1. Return the broth to a full boil. 

  2. Arrange the slices of raw beef and pieces of cooked oxtail meat over the noodles in each bowl. 

  3. Carefully ladle the boiling broth over all.

  4. The raw beef should be submerged in the broth, and the heat from the broth will quickly begin to cook it.  (I like pulling it out when medium rare, and setting some of it aside.)

Serve immediately, along with a platter of garnish for each serving. 

  • The technique is for each person to season his or her individual bowl of Pho, adding fresh herbs as you go along (keeps the flavor bright and fresh, particularly for the cilantro), more or less chilies, sauces, etc. 

  • You keep building as you go, and each bowl is tailored to your own individual taste. (It's fun to eat this way, too!)

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