Every culture has one – a dish that makes you feel so good inside, it can’t possibly be wrong. A dish that tastes like it should be good for you, that it should be able to beat anything that ails you into submission. Folk food, family food, street food.
Pho, (pronounced “fur” or “fuh” for the uninitiated) is one such dish. It started life as a labourer’s breakfast and is now a lunchtime favourite.
It sounds simple enough – flat rice noodles, thinly sliced raw beef, a few herbs and spring onions, and then an aromatic boiling broth is poured over the lot to cook the meat. How hard could it be? But all pho is not created equal.
Good pho has hidden depths of flavour, enhanced by the chilli, lemon, basil and whatever you add to it. It’s the noodle soup of the Gods, and just by eating it you’re treating your body as a temple.
Whenever I feel as though I need a little self-care, as if the sniffle could possibly be threatening to turn into my annual head cold, as if I’ve been spending too much time doing tasks that I don’t find in the least rewarding and my brain is tired and my soul empty – that’s when I go for this soup.
The problem is, the really good pho – the pho that you get at really good pho places – involves making stock from beef bones and simmering it for 4 hours. Of course, you get the benefit of the bone broth, but it’s not exactly a quick fix for a craving. The other thing is, a real pho, as fabulous as it is, does have a reasonable amount of fat in it – which isn’t a great thing when you’re the heaviest you’ve ever been and trying not to be so anymore.
To this end, I’ve come up with my cheatie pho – the one that you go to after a long day when you don’t have time to think but you want to be healthy and feel warm and cosy on the inside. And there’s nothing to be guilty about here.
Yes, it’s quite a list but the aromatics tend to be ones we usually have on hand and the whole thing goes together quite quickly. As with all my recipes, this is a combo of a few ideas and the quantities are, shall we say, inexact. Taste the stock as you go and adjust to your own taste. This quantity feeds the 3 of us with leftover stock for lunch the next day. We find 225-250g steak is ample for the three of us for dinner.
If you want you can do this with chicken as well – just substitute good chicken stock for the beef and a couple of thinly sliced chicken breasts that you poach in the soup before serving.
For the stock
- 2 litres beef stock
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- a good size knob of ginger – I use a piece about the length of my thumb – sliced but don’t worry about peeling it
- 4 cloves garlic – smash with the back of a knife but don’t worry about peeling it
- 1 cinnamon quill
- 3 pieces star anise
- 5 cardamon pods, bruised
- 2 cups water
- 1 tsp five-spice powder
- 2 tbsp fish sauce (you can add more later if it needs the salt)
- a few whole cloves
- 2 kaffir lime leaves (or some peeled lime rind)
- If you have one, a stalk of lemongrass (bruised)
- Optional: 1 tbsp grated palm sugar (or caster sugar)
For the soup
- Noodles – you can use 200g rice vermicelli or fresh rice noodles – it’s up to you.
- 250g beef fillet
- 2 spring onions, sliced
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 2 long red chilli, de-seeded and sliced
- 2 small chillies, sliced
- fresh basil
- lime cheeks
Making the stock:
- Fry the onion, garlic and ginger in a couple of tablespoons of oil (I usually use rice bran) in a large saucepan. You want them to soften and colour just a little.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to the boil. Once the stock is boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 20-30 mins. Check for seasoning and add more fish sauce or some grated palm sugar to taste. We tend not to use the sugar. Squeeze in some lime or lemon juice if required.
Putting the soup together:
- Place your noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Vermicelli normally needs about 10mins soaking.
- Slice your beef as finely as possible. It will cook in your broth so needs to be as thin as it’s possible for beef to be. A good trick is to put it in the freezer for an hour or two – it’s much easier to slice when you take it out.
- Strain your stock and return it to the pan, bringing it back to the boil.
- Divide the noodles between the bowls, top with the onions, then the beef and pour over the hot soup. If the beef is thin enough, the stock should be enough to cook it to medium-rare.
- Garnish with the spring onions and chillis.
- Serve with the basil, sliced hot chillis and lime on the side. Traditionally you’d also serve with bean sprouts but I’m not a fan.