When the National Dish Is a Soup
That Often Appears at Breakfast
The Vietnamese soup called Pho is often said to be the national dish of Vietnam. Unusually for a country’s main dish, it is a soup. The soup can be eaten any time of day and is often thought of as a late-night food and a street food. But it is also popular at breakfast.
I first came across the Pho soup in Ho Chi Minh City – we called it Saigon then – in the 1960s. Guests at the small hotel where I stayed near the Saigon Central Market often had it at breakfast time. I tried the soup and immediately became a fan..
I got the hotel concierge to get a list of the ingredients the cook said he used – the recipe is attached below.
There are many recipes for Pho, however,and several good ones have been published in different collections. The attached recipe is simple and everyone seems to like it.
According to some accounts Pho was first made in the Hanoi area in the 1920s and later spread through Vietnam. With the victory of the North, the recipes for Pho got spread by North Vietnamese refugees to Europe, North America, Canada and Australia. It also became very popular among people who are not of Vietnamese origin.
Pronouncing Pho: Although the name of the soup looks as though it would be pronounced to rhyme with the English word “foe,” actually the vowel in the word is what linguists call “schwa..”
There is even a Web site which tells you how to pronounce Pho.
There are two main types of Pho, Beef Pho or Pho Bo and Chicken Pho or Pho Ga. They are very similar, except for the meat used. Chicken Pho is not made with charred ginger, which is often added to the beef version to neutralize the smell of beef.
Since Pho, now regarded by many as the national dish, seems to date its origin in the 20th century, the question arises, what was the national dish of Vietnam before? After all, the Vietnamese people have a history of over a thousand years. We will deal with this question in a separate article.
Nutritionally, the beef version of Pho gets most of its calories, flavor and nutrition from the beef used to make it, plus the vegetables added.
How Many Calories? There is a Web site that claims the calorie content of a bowl of Pho is exactly 367 calories. But this seems too precise, since the size of the bowl used, the amount of meat included, the specific vegetables used and so on would all play a role.
Whatever else it is, Pho is not what you would describe as a precise dish, as there is significantly leeway for the cook to vary the meat, seasonings, vegetables and final condiments. All of thee have different calorie counts.
So let’s say a bowl of Pho might contain about 350 – 400 calories. In any case a decent calorie count for breakfast, depending on what else might accompany it.
In its classic version, Beef Pho is made with white rice noodles in a clea beef broth with thin slices of beef. The broth for Beef Pho is made by simmering beef bones and some beef. The soup is typically served with lots of greens, herbs and vegetables, including onions, chili peppers, cilantro, bean sprouts, basil and limes.
Beef Pho Soup
- 8 cups water
- 3 small onions
- 3 bay leaves
- 4 star anise pods
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon black pepper corns
- 1 slice fresh ginger root
- 1 teaspoon white sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 pound beef bones
- 1 pound lean beef
- 1 large scallion
- 1/2 pound dried flat rice sicks
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 lime, quartered
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
Tie the star anise, cinnamon, black pepper corns and cloves in a small muslin or cheesecloth bag.
Place two onions, bay leaves, salt, sugar, salt and ginger in the water on a high fire. Put in scrap bones and half a pound of beef. When this comes to a boil, turn the fire down to medium to simmer for an hour.
Occasionally skim the fat from the broth. Or, if you are making the broth the day before, place it in the refrigerator and then skim the fat off when it is congealed. When the soup is finally done, remove the spice bag and discard.
While the broth is simmering, mince the scallion and one small onion. Cut the remaining half pound of beef into thin strips an inch long by a quarter inch wide and as finely as ;you can cut it. The beef should be sliced paper thin so that it will cook instantly later. Put this aside until ready to serve.
About 15 minutes before the broth is finished, prepare the rice sticks by bringing a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Soak the rice sticks in water for about 20 minutes. Then cook in boiling water about 5 minutes. The rice sticks should be soft but not mushy. Drain them and arrange in the bottom of the soup bowls. Add the minced onion and scallion, including green tops and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.
Five minutes before serving, start boiling the soup again. Just before serving, place the beef strips in a strainer and dunk in the boiling broth for about 10 to 20 seconds. The strips should be so fine that they will cook in this short time.
Now place the beef strips in bowls, pour on the broth and add a squeeze of lime. A little fish sauce enhances the taste of the beef. This makes a meal for two or three, especially with French bread.