I wistfully reminisce on my grandmother’s pho every time I order a bowl of it in Vietnam. One of my earliest memories is at seven years old. I remember asking my grandmother if we were having pho for dinner after seeing her charring the onions and ginger on the stove in the garage (another story in itself). I thought it was a reasonable request considering it was 4:00pm yet she scoffed and told me to be patient. I had to wait until the morning to get my pho fix.
You see, my grandmother was from the old country. Full on old school Vietnamese.
And that meant don’t mess with the broth.
A proper pho broth can take up to 12 hours and involves some serious preparation. My grandmother never skimped on the prep. Each step complements the next to create a simple yet complex broth that never needed much in the way of sauces or garnishes. In fact, until I started eating pho outside of the home, I never garnished it with much more than a squirt of lime and a dab of sriracha chili sauce.
I hardly ever order more than a bowl of pho tai chin which translates to pho rare well. This bowl has well done beef brisket along with sliced thin round steak that is placed raw in the bowl and cooked with the steaming hot broth. However, you can go nuts with pho, mainly in Saigon where anything goes. You can get nam or cooked beef flank, gan or beef tendon, gau or fatty brisket, bo vien or beef meatballs, sach or tripe and ve don or flank with cartilage. You could go crazy and order a dac biet which is the special bowl that usually has everything but the kitchen sink in it. If you are really hungry, see if they have pho xe lua aka a big ass bowl of pho so big they named it ‘the train’.
Depending on my state of mind or level of hungoverness, I go nuts with the extras or just keep it simple. My suggestion is to taste the broth first. If it’s pretty spot on for you, for heavens sake, leave it alone and just dig in. However, if it needs something, there is plenty on the table to help you out with that. One of the best things about Vietnamese food is the personalisation.
Need a bit more citrus? Squeeze some lime.
Need the heat? Use the chopped chilis on the table. Do not use the neon red chili sauce. It’s generally sweeter than spicy. However, some places do stock Vietnamese sriracha. If so, go for that.
Like most Asians, food is intertwined in our identity and while most of me is Californian to a fault, when it comes to my pho, I take it very seriously.