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Breakfast in Hanoi: A Steaming Bowl of Pho

It was overcast this morning, with what the weather service likes to call “wintery mix”—in our case the occasional rain drop interspersed with an ice crystal or two. In Hanoi it was also cloudy with passing rain showers, but the temperature was a spring-like 18 degrees Celsius. Still we could almost imagine ourselves there because, like practically everyone in Hanoi, we were breakfasting on a bowl of pho.

Pho is the breakfast of choice for Hanoi champions. Served at street stalls in the old town, it is an aromatic beef soup simmered with charred onion and ginger, then with cinnamon and star anise. The resulting broth is fragrant with the sweet scent of the commingled spices and the dusky undertones of nuoc mam, or fish sauce. Served with rice noodles and slices of raw and cooked beef, topped with chopped onion, cilantro, mint, green chilies and lashings of sriracha and hoisin sauce, it is the kind of breakfast that fortifies even the most most sleep-deprived citizens for a day of work.

Everyone who makes pho does it a little differently. Our recipe comes from Ha Guthrie, former owner of Kim Son restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. One afternoon, Ha invited us into the kitchen to show us how to make gio thu, a Hanoi-style black pepper and pork “pate” eaten during New Year’s celebrations. While we were chopping pigs’ ears and scallions, a vat of broth for pho was gently simmering on the back burner, perfuming the kitchen with the most irresistible aromas of licorice and cinnamon. A few weeks later, she gave us the recipe by phone, then stopped by to rescue us as we bumbled erratically through our notes. This is the perfected version.


Ha Guthrie’s Pho: Beef Soup with Cinnamon and Star Anise

Ingredients for soup:

4 pounds beef bones
1 package oxtails (about 8 pieces)
1 whole medium onion, unpeeled
1 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled
1 cup cilantro stems, bottom 4 inches
1 4-inch piece of daikon, unpeeled and in one chunk
2-1/2 pounds chuck roast, in one piece
10 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick, 5 inches
2 tablespoons nuoc mam, or Vietnamese fish sauce (see note)
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
16 ounces rice stick noodles (see note)
1-1/2 pounds eye round roast, thinly sliced

Ingredients for garnish:

1/2 onion, thinly sliced
3 scallions, green part only, sliced
cilantro tops, finely chopped
1 small bunch basil
1 small bunch mint
1-1/2 cups bean sprouts
1 or 2 fresh jalapenos, thinly sliced
hoisin sauce
sriracha sauce (see note)
limes, cut in half, 1 per person

Method:

1. Place beef bones in a large stock pot with cold water to cover and soak for 2 or more hours. Drain, cover with fresh cold water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and drain. Rinse off bones. Clean the pot and return the bones to the pot. Cover with 20 cups of cold water and bring to a boil. Add the oxtails and return to a boil. Skim the impurities from the surface and simmer over medium-low heat, partly covered, for 3 hours.

2. While the stock is simmering, char the onion in the flame of the gas burner. Char the ginger and cut in half.

3. After the beef bones and oxtails have simmered for 3 to 4 hours, add the charred onion, ginger, cilantro stems, daikon and chuck roast to the pot. Simmer for one hour. Remove from the heat and strain into another pot. Reserve the chuck roast.

4. One hour before serving: Return the stock to a simmer and add the star anise and cinnamon to the pot. Place the noodles in another large pot, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil and cook until soft. Drain and set aside.

5. Thirty minutes before serving: Add the fish sauce, salt and sugar to the simmering stock.

6. While the stock is simmering, thinly slice the chuck roast and set aside. Thinly slice the raw eye round and set aside. Prepare a plate of garnishes for each person: sliced onion and green tops of scallions, a few stems of basil and mint, bean sprouts, slices of jalapeno, a half lime, a mound of rice noodles, and several slices of chuck roast.

7. To serve, place a few slices of raw eye round in each bowl and top with the hot stock. The stock will partly cook the eye round, but it should remain medium rare. Serve each person with a plate of garnishes and dishes of hoisin and sriracha sauce.

Note: Nuoc mam, sriracha sauce (made of fiery red chilies) and rice stick noodles can be found at Asian markets. Nam pla, or Thai fish sauce, may be substituted for nuoc mam.
Editor’s note: For more on pho, see “Good morning, Vietnam” by Alex Renton for The Observer, Sunday, May 16, 2004.

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