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Pho Saigon: A Southern Pho Recipe

Asian Soups

Welcome to my three-part series on how to make Pho, Vietnam’s famous beef noodle soup. In this series, I’m going to explore and share recipes for the three most popular types of Pho. Today, we’ll look at the most popular version outside Vietnam — Pho Saigon, also just called Saigon Pho. One could argue it is the most famous of all Southeast Asian soup recipes.

Pho Saigon aka Saigon Pho

I’ll follow this up with a Hanoi Pho, and finally, Chicken Pho. All three of these Pho recipes will be made in the traditional manner – slowly simmered on the stovetop to develop some heart-stopping incredible flavor.

So please put the Instant Pot away for now and forget about making a quick and easy Pho recipe (also known as “faux pho”) of which there is a kazillion online.

Let’s learn to really make Pho the way they make it in Vietnam. 

How I Learned to Make Pho Saigon

I’d love to say that I’ve learned to make Pho Saigon the way I learned to make things like Tom Yum Goong, Jok, and Mohinga — by traveling directly to their countries of origin. But alas, I’ve yet to make it to Vietnam. I hope to change that soon! So in the meantime, I’ve primarily learned how to make Pho via The Pho Cookbook, by Andrea Nguyen.

If you really want to learn to make Pho at home, this is an awesome resource. Nguyen, a native of Vietnam, will teach you about the history of Pho, how it evolved and changed, and how it continues to evolve and change around the globe.

And of course, she’ll show you how to make Pho in a variety of different and delicious ways, including recipes with pork, shrimp, and other types of seafood.

But personally, I wanted to learn to make Pho the traditional way. This is why I was so excited to find three recipes she calls, “old school stunners” in the chapter titled “Master Pho.”

I’ll be making all three of the old-school stunners in this series starting with this Pho Saigon recipe.

Saigon Pho recipe

What is Pho Saigon?

It’s the southern Vietnamese version of Pho that came out of Saigon and the one that almost every Vietnamese restaurant in America serves.

Of course, it’s popular for a reason. It is so dang delicious it almost hurts.

The three defining features of a Saigon Pho are its semi-sweet, homemade beef broth, the liberal use of garnishes (herbs and bean sprouts), and the use of hoisin sauce and a chili sauce (often sriracha) for seasoning. It’s become so standardized in America that most people don’t know any other type of Pho.

And that’s OK. Familiarity is a good thing when you’re first learning any Pho recipe.

More Southeast Asian Recipes and Articles

How to Make Pho Saigon

Without question, and this goes for any type of Pho, the most important element is the beef broth.

Sure you can use beef broth from a box, add a few spices, simmer it for a little while, and then season it with fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and sriracha and call it “Pho” (though it’s really faux pho). I’ve certainly done that at times.

It will taste good.

But it won’t taste magical.

To make Pho in a way that will make time stand still, you really need to make your own beef broth from scratch with all the aromatics and spices.

The following 8 steps will teach you how to make Pho from start to finish. But it’s the first four steps where the magic happens. Follow them as closely as possible and I promise you’ll have made the best pot of Pho you’ve ever tasted in your life.

Step 1. Start the beef broth

You’ll need about 6 to 7 pounds of beef bones. Try to use a variety of bones such as marrow, neck, and knucklebones. Each one adds slightly different tastes and textures to the broth giving it more depth and complexity. For example, neck bones add meaty flavor, marrow bones add good nutrients and knucklebones add body. You could also use a beef oxtail if you can find one.

Add the bones to a large stockpot. Add filtered water to cover (about 6-7 quarts) the bones, and bring the water to a boil. Before the water boils, skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Once the water boils, reduce the heat to a gentle, slow simmer. Cover and keep the broth gently simmering for four to six hours.

The next step is one that almost all faux pho recipes skip but is essential for creating that magical-tasting pho broth.

Step 2. Char some ginger and onion and add it to the broth

Charring ginger and onion will convert their sugars and add a slight sweetness to the broth. It also enhances their aromatic quality which makes the broth that much more delicious.

charred ginger an onion for Saigon pho

First, cut one unpeeled white or yellow onion in half.  You can also use one or two large shallots in place of an onion. Next, take about a four-inch piece of unpeeled ginger and slice it in half lengthwise.

There are a few ways to char the onion and ginger depending on your stovetop situation.

Charring Option 1: Grill

The best way to char them is via a grill. Simply add them to a moderately hot grill, turning them every so often until they’re slightly blackened but not charred to a crisp.

Charring Option 2: Gas stove

The next best option is to use a gas stove. Put a grate of some sort over the burner and char them the same way as if you’re grilling them. Make sure to put the stove fan on for this.

Charring Option 3: Broil

The last option, which is the option I used, is to broil them under high heat. This option will take a little longer and the onions will likely char faster than the ginger. Watch them closely, turn them on occasion, and remove them from the oven after about 10-15 minutes.

Once charred, remove them from the heat for a few minutes to let them cool. Then remove the outer skin from the onion and peel the ginger. Remove any blackened pieces and add the ginger and onion to the beef broth.

Step 3. Add sugar and spice to the broth

And suffice to say, this really does make everything nice. As mentioned above, one of the defining characteristics of Pho Saigon is its sweetness. I’m not talking about syrupy sweet here but just a touch of it. Typically, rock sugar is used, a common sweetener in Asian cuisine, which, unlike white sugar, adds a delicate hint of sweetness and helps meld the other spices. Do not use white sugar as a replacement! You can find rock sugar in Asian supermarkets. Sometimes it’s called “lump candy” like so…

rock sugar

If you can’t find rock sugar locally, this is a good brand on Amazon.

Next, add the classic trifecta of spices…

classic spices for Pho

That would be 1 cinnamon stick, about 4-5 whole star anise, 5-6 cloves, and a 1/2 ounce (about 3 teaspoons) of rock sugar. Add them to the beef broth and continue to simmer for the full 4-6 hours.

Step 4. Add fish sauce to the broth, to taste

When the broth is almost done simmering, add about 1/4 cup of fish sauce. Go slow here. Start with 2 tablespoons, taste, and add more as needed. Nguyen recommends also adding sea salt to the broth but I would caution against that.

Different types of fish sauce are saltier than others. Trust me, there’s no one that loves salty more than me but there’s nothing worse than oversalting your broth, especially after you’ve spent hours making it. Stick with the fish sauce and add it slowly, to taste.

When you’re happy with the taste, let the broth cool at room temperature for about 30 minutes, and then strain the broth. The rest of the steps below come together quickly and easily.

Step 5. Thinly slice raw beef

Ideally, you want thinly sliced raw beef that will cook when you add it to the hot broth. Like so…

thinly sliced beef for a Saigon pho recipe

I got pretty lucky here. My wonderful meat CSA included shaved beef this month so I didn’t have to slice it. That was actually what inspired me to write this series. I knew immediately I would be making A LOT of Saigon pho.

You can use any cut of beef but sirloin and NY strip are good cuts for flavor and slicing thin.

Also, there may be some good pieces of beef on the bones too. Nguyen recommends removing the bones after about an hour and a half of simmering, trimming off any meaty pieces, and then returning the bones to the broth. This is why you will often find different cuts of beef in traditional preparations of Saigon pho.

Step 6. Make the rice noodles

Just before the broth is finished, make your rice noodles. Try to find standard medium-sized flat rice noodles (which look like fettucini). Most health food stores now carry them in dried form. I often see brands from both Thailand and Vietnam. Here’s the brand I used.

If you can find fresh or semi-fresh rice noodles in the refrigerated section of a local Asian market, consider yourself lucky. They will be more expensive but their texture and flavor are superior to dried rice noodles. And they only require a very brief blanching in boiling water to cook them.

Step 7. Get your herbs and sprouts ready

To make Pho in the Saigon-style way, that means the classic herb trifecta of cilantro, Thai basil, and mint as well as bean sprouts…

classic Pho herbs

These three herbs add such great flavor! You can use just one if you like but I love using all three. Thai basil may be hard to find outside Asian supermarkets. But don’t substitute regular basil! Just mint and cilantro are fine to use.

Now if you’re among those who hate cilantro and think it tastes like soap, you might try culantro instead. Yes, that’s culantro with a “u.” It’s also known as sawtooth herb. And yes, you’ll definitely need an Asian market to find this.

Here’s a good article on the difference between cilantro and culantro.

Here’s what it looks like…

culantro

I LOVE using culantro in pho. Although some say it’s similar in flavor to cilantro, I think it has a more herbal flavor. It’s hard to describe but if you can find it, just try it!

Step 8. Get your seasonings ready

That would be your sriracha, hoisin sauce, and fish sauce…

classic Saigon Pho seasonings

Now here’s where I’m going to sway a little bit from convention and give you a few recommendations based on my own experience.

Recommendation #1: Go easy with the seasonings!

I’ve learned the hard way. There’s nothing worse than going through all the above steps to make a Saigon Pho recipe only to accidentally add way too much hoisin and sriracha. They can easily overpower the subtle flavors that took so much time to develop during the broth-making process.

Just add a little bit at a time until you find what you like.

Recommendation #2: Make your own seasonings or seek out different brands

For many people what I’m about to say will sound absolutely treasonous but I’m going to say it…

I don’t love Sriracha.

There I said it. Of course, I”m talking about the Huy Fong brand pictured above, the most popular store-bought sriracha.

I really don’t get this weird cultural phenomenon around it. People LOVE this stuff like it’s some sort of secret family recipe. I don’t know how it caught on but I find the taste a bit harsh and processed. And that’s the thing. It is highly processed. Have you looked at the ingredients? There are some not-so-great things in there.

Same for the hoisin sauce. Sorry to say but it’s not the best quality stuff out there either.

So my recommendation here is two-fold. First, try the homemade recipes for hoisin sauce and chili sauce in The Pho Cookbook.  Admittedly, I did not do this. But I can almost guarantee you’ll love how they taste. I say this because of my travels in Asia where it’s very common for small family-run places to make their own condiments like chili sauces, vinegars, and pastes.

They always taste AMAZING.

It’s also nice to experience some variety in your Pho Saigon. In my opinion, many recipes suffer from a bit of a homogenized flavor due to the ubiquitous use of Huy Fong brand sriracha and Leek Kum Lee brand hoisin sauce.

Now I realize very few people will make their own sriracha and hoisin sauce so the second part of my recommendation is to try to find some different store-bought brands. Sriracha is so trendy now that you’ll probably find a few artisan srirachas in your local health food stores. Here’s what I found in mine…

locally made sriracha

Good quality hoisin sauce is a lot harder to find. I’m not even aware of one. But if you know of a good quality brand please share in the comments below.

Step 9. Put it all together

Place the rice noodles in individual serving bowls, followed by the raw beef, and pour in the hot broth to cook the beef. Add the garnishes and seasonings, to taste.

You now know how to make Pho like a master!

Finally, if you have any other insights or experience for a Saigon Pho recipe, don’t hesitate to comment. I love learning from others. There are so many different methods to make Pho out there that I always enjoy hearing others’ twists, tips, and tricks.

Full Saigon Pho Recipe

Adapted from Andrea Nguyen’s recipe in The Pho Cookbook.

Pho Saigon Recipe

This classic Pho recipe is slighty sweet and makes liberal use of herbs, bean sprouts and seasonings such as fish sauce, sriracha and hoisin sauce.
Print Recipe Pin Recipe
CourseMain Course, Soup
CuisineVietnamese
Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time4 hours
Total Time4 hours 30 minutes
Servings8 servings
Calories280kcal
AuthorCraig Fear
Cost$40

Ingredients

  • 6-7 pounds beef bones
  • 6 quarts filtered water
  • 1 large onion or 2 large shallots
  • 1 4-inch piece ginger
  • 5-6 whole star anise
  • 6-7 whole cloves
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 1/2 ounce rock sugar
  • 2-4 TBSPs fish sauce
  • 1 pound beef thinly sliced or shaved, for up to 8 people
  • 1 package rice noodles flat

Garnishes and Seasonings

  • 1 bunch Cilantro or culantro leaves
  • 1 bunch Mint leaves
  • 1 bunch Thai basil leaves
  • 1 package Bean sprouts
  • Sriracha, to taste
  • Hoisin sauce, to taste
  • Fish sauce, to taste

Instructions

  • Get about six to seven pounds of beef bones, add them to your stock pot, add filtered water to cover (about 6-7 quarts) and bring the water to a boil. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface and reduce the heat to a gentle, slow simmer.
  • Cut one unpeeled white or yellow onion in half (or two large shallots). Slice unpeeled ginger in half lengthwise. Char ginger and onion on a grill, gas stovetop or by broiling in oven as described above and add to the broth.
  • Add rock sugar, cinnamon, star anise and cloves to the broth. Cover and keep the broth gently simmering for four to six hours.
  • When the broth is almost done simmering, add about 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and taste. Add more fish sauce, as needed, until the desired saltiness is achieved. About another 2 TBSPs is recommended.
  • Thinly slice raw beef and set aside.
  • Prepare rice noodles according to package directions.
  • Place herbs and bean sprouts in bowls for individual garnishes.
  • Prepare sriracha, hoisin sauce and fish sauce for individual use.
  • Place rice noodles in individual bowls, place raw beef (or other types of beef) on top and ladle over with hot broth. Add garnishes and sauces, to taste.

Nutrition

Serving: 2cups (1 bowl) | Calories: 280kcal | Carbohydrates: 31g | Protein: 12g | Fat: 12g | Saturated Fat: 4g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.4g | Monounsaturated Fat: 5g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 40mg | Sodium: 131mg | Potassium: 274mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 4g | Vitamin A: 35IU | Vitamin C: 7mg | Calcium: 61mg | Iron: 2mg
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About the Author

Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.

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