Unless you’re from Vietnam you may not be aware that there are two main styles of Pho, the famous Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Most of what’s served in Vietnamese restaurants in America is Saigon Pho, the southern style. But there’s also a northern style known as Ha Noi Pho.
Ha Noi, more commonly spelled Hanoi, is the capital city of Vietnam and it is where Pho originated in the early 20th century. Of course, there are other styles of Pho, such as this Chicken Pho recipe, but Beef Pho, called Pho Bo in Vietnamese, is the main style of Pho.
I’ve read that many Vietnamese are VERY opinionated as to which type of Beef Pho recipe is the best. Regional food debates can get quite passionate! I imagine it’s similar to the heated debate between New York pizza vs. Chicago-style pizza.
I will tell you in all honesty that without question, I have also become as opinionated about Pho as I am about pizza.
Because as a native New Yorker, just the words “deep dish pizza” make my blood boil. Chicago-style pizza is like eating a pizza sandwich. It’s way too doughy with too many toppings. Just get a calzone or an Italian sub for god’s sake. The best pizza is plain and all about that magical combination of a thin crust, cheese, and sauce. All that extra fancy stuff obscures the very essence of pizza!
And that’s kind of how I now feel about Hanoi style Pho. It’s a simpler, purer form.
My first taste of Ha Noi Pho immediately made me think this…
OMG. Now, this is how Pho is really supposed to taste!
Most of us in America are familiar with the Saigon Pho style, which is perhaps the most famous of all Southeast Asian soup recipes. Saigon Pho is sweetened with sugar and then served with sriracha and hoisin sauce for additional flavoring. It’s also accompanied by lots of herbs, bean sprouts, and lime wedges, like so…
It’s delicious (and colorful), of course, but my one criticism of Saigon Pho is the ubiquitous use of Hoy-Fun brand sriracha (the one with the rooster on the bottle) and Lee Kum Kee brand hoisin sauce. They tend to give it a somewhat homogenized flavor because almost every restaurant uses these two brands. They also can easily overpower the flavor of the beef broth.
But with Ha Noi Pho, it’s ALL about the beef broth. There’s NO sriracha, NO hoisin sauce, and minimal garnishes. I guess it’s kind of like how pizza should be without stupid amounts of toppings.
And when the beef broth is made the old-school way, slowly simmered with charred ginger and onion and those classic Pho spices, man does it develop some unbelievable flavor.
Personally, I was hooked immediately. I’m now a total Ha Noi pho convert.
Via The Pho Cookbook by Andrea Nguyen.
It’s written by Andrea Nguyen, a native of Vietnam, and she explores a wide variety of ways to make Pho. But it’s her three recipes for what she calls the “old-school stunners” that inspired me to make a traditional beef Pho recipe.
These stunners are made in the traditional way, with a broth that’s been slowly simmered for hours, the way they’ve been doing it for decades on the streets of Vietnam.
As I always do when I learn a new recipe, I adapt it to suit my own tastes (and to what I can find in local food stores) without venturing too far from the original. I usually make it a few different ways with a few different twists, compare the results, share what I like and don’t like, and give you some options to make it how you like it.
Let’s get started!
There are 9 steps to make a Ha Noi Pho recipe (see the full, printable recipe at the bottom of this post).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The last option 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.
For this Ha Noi Pho recipe, I used some shallots in place of onions (which Nguyen recommended for more savory notes) and charred them with the ginger via option 3 in my oven…
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 and remove any blackened pieces…
Add the shallots or onion and ginger to your beef broth.
For the spices, that would be 1 cinnamon stick, a few whole cardamom pods (crushed to expose the seeds), 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, and 4-5 whole star anise.
These are similar to the spices used in a Saigon-style pho recipe with a few small exceptions. But the biggest difference here is that there’s NO sugar added, like rock sugar. One of the defining features, if not THE defining feature, of Hanoi pho is its savoriness. And that’s why dried shrimp is added too.
This dried shrimp pictured above was from my local Asian food market. You could also use other types of dried seafood like scallops and anchovies. You should be able to find something in any Asian food market because dried seafood is a common addition to many Asian soups, pastes, and sauces. And that’s because of its umami flavor!
But if you can’t find anything, it’s not that big of a deal. Just skip it.
Simmer everything in steps 1 to 3 for about 4 to 6 hours.
Now the next step is optional but I made this Ha Noi Pho recipe twice, once with step 4 and once without it, and I can say with absolute confidence that you should do this…
Peel it, core it, and then slice it up into small chunks and add it to the broth.
I don’t know how common this is in Vietnam but Nguyen recommended it to give the broth just a delicate hint of sweetness.
All I can say is that it took the broth to an out-of-this-world sort of level. Without the apple, the broth was still great, so no big deal if you skip this step. But there’s a subtle, albeit noticeable, more rounded, balanced flavor with it.
After simmering for 4-6 hours, remove the broth from the heat and let it sit for about 15-20 minutes. Then strain it using a fine-mesh strainer and/or fine-mesh cheesecloth. Next, season it with fish sauce.
Start with 2 TBSPs and taste. Add up to 2 TBSPs more, to your desired taste. If you’re making this for a group of people, go easy here and let each person add additional fish sauce, to their personal tastes, when it’s served in individual bowls.
Also, if you’re not going to use the broth right away, don’t season it with fish sauce until you’ve removed it from the fridge and reheated it.
Try to use shaved beef or just slice any cut of beef into very thin slices.
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.
For the herbs that would be the classic trifecta of Pho herbs – cilantro, Thai basil, and mint. You don’t have to use any of them if you don’t want. Many Ha Noi Pho purists feel that even herbs can distract from the flavor of the broth. Nguyen doesn’t use Thai basil in her recipe but I just love it so much, so I did use a little bit. Green onions are also a common addition.
For the seasonings, there’s very little other than fish sauce. But you could add a simple homemade sauce of garlic, chiles, and vinegar.
It’s a simple garnish that complements any Hanoi Pho recipe well with sour and spicy notes. This is totally optional, though recommended if you can remember to prepare it the day before. And it’s so easy to make. Nguyen has a simple recipe in her book that I slightly adapted to my taste.
Take 2-3 cloves of garlic, crush them slightly, split one or two chiles, and then add a quart cup each of rice vinegar and water to a small glass jar. Cover and put it in the fridge for a day to meld the flavors and it’s ready to go.
You can play around with those amounts and find what you like. Nguyen used a 2:1 ratio of water to vinegar but I thought that was a bit too diluted. And she only used one serrano which I didn’t think was spicy enough so I added a red Thai chile for an extra kick.
Experiment and find what you like!
Place the rice noodles in individual serving bowls, followed by the raw beef, and pour in the hot broth to cook the beef. Add additional fish sauce, herbs, green onions, and the garlic vinegar, to taste.
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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