Soup seems to be a universal comfort food. The French have their onion soup, the Italians minestrone, and Moroccans love harira. For me, to be honest, tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich are the most comforting combination on earth. And Vietnamese pho is certainly part of this long list.
My parents are big fans of a Vietnamese restaurant near the neighborhood, but I never ventured much onto the unfamiliar side of the menu. On my first visit, I ordered some cashew chicken bowl, and then came out my parents’ pho. Big, steaming bowls of noodles and meat in a steaming, aromatic broth, delivered with a big side plate of fresh, green herbs. I was not willing to admit that I had ordered poorly, so I stuck up my nose at the pho.
Not long after that, I had one of the best bowls of soup I have ever experienced. At a market in Cambodia, I marveled at a bowl of beef noodle soup that smelled so fantastically delicious, it absolutely enveloped me, even overpowering the smells of the market around me. The broth was so fragrant with chunks of beef and a nice slick of grease on the top that coated the noodles as I plucked them out. I have never forgotten that soup, and know I will never truly recreate that moment.
So now when I go to the Vietnamese place, I order pho. Different types, depending on my mood. I don’t know what the Cambodian equivalent of pho is, but I have attempted to create my own equivalent. I know it’s a simple version. I don’t simmer bones to make my own stock or use any overly exotic ingredients – I’ll leave that to the restaurant chefs. But this is warming, comforting and kind in its own way. This soup is easy to make, but impressive to serve.
Simple Beef Pho
The plate of fresh herbs presented along with the steaming soup make this a real treat.
4 cups low sodium beef broth
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves garlic
1 shallot, peeled and cut into chunks
1 Tablespoon sugar
3 Tablespoons fish sauce
8 ounces rice stick noodles
6 ounces top sirloin steak
Pour the broth into a large saucepan and add the spices, shallot, garlic, sugar and fish sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer for 20 – 30 minutes.
While the broth is infusing, soak the rice noodles according to the package instructions. Drain and rinse with cold water.
Slice the beef as thinly as possible. It is easiest to do this with cold beef and a very sharp knife. Putting the beef in the freezer for 15 minutes before slicing will also help.
When the broth has infused, drain through a sieve, discarding the solids. Wipe out the saucepan and return the broth to it. Place the noodles in a large serving bowl or in individual bowls. Bring the broth to a boil and drop in the beef slices. Cook for just a minute, maybe two, until the beef is just warmed through. Immediately transfer the beef slices to the noodle bowl, then ladle the broth over.
Serve the pho with leaves of cilantro, mint and basil to be sprinkled on top.