For comfort and simplicity, few foods beat the Vietnamese beef noodle soup known as pho. Served in deep, oversized bowls, pho consists of long strands of rice noodles, a smattering of fresh herbs and thin slices of meat cooked quickly in hot broth. According to Chef Mai Pham, author of Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, pho originated in Hanoi after the French occupation of Vietnam in the late-1800s. Historians note its similarities to pot-au-feu, a French classic with meat and vegetables cooked in water or consommé. Some believe the word pho (pronounced “fuh”) comes from feu, the French word for “fire.”
Others point to the influence of the Chinese, neighbors to the north, who favored ingredients such as rice noodles, ginger and star anise. In time, of course, the Vietnamese embraced pho as their own. They added splashes of fish sauce to the simmering broth, and some cooks incorporated mung bean sprouts and aromatic basil. They also offered garnishes and condiments. This is the pho Vietnamese immigrants introduced to Americans in the 1980s and ’90s.
The recipe includes a lot of ingredients, but it can be made in stages. While the broth bubbles gently on the stove, work on other elements. An hour or so later, top servings of cooked noodles with slices of beef, and ladle on generous amounts of steamy broth. With chopsticks in one hand and soup spoons in the other, slurp away.
By Christina Eng, a food writer in Oakland, Calif.