Barbecue. Sushi. Bread.
There are dishes in this world so epic they cannot be contained by a mere recipe. Their legends fill entire books, complexities revealed over the course of pages and chapters. These dishes only yield their secrets to those willing to practice techniques and source proper ingredients and equipment. The Pho Cookbook, Vietnamese-foods expert Andrea Nguyen’s latest book, makes the case for adding pho to that elite list.
“I figured that I knew what pho was all about,” writes Nguyen, who grew up eating the noodle soup in Vietnam and California. “What was there to present beyond the familiar brothy bowl? As it turned out, a lot.”
Over the course of one hundred fifty pages, The Pho Cookbook tracks the story of the famous soup, from its roots as a subtle, delicately balanced breakfast dish in Northern Vietnam, to its evolution in Saigon as a “bodacious, sweet-savory [bowl] served with a pile of vegetables and various condiments.” Nguyen outlines pho etiquette, takes a trip to the rumored birthplace of pho in the Northern Vietnamese towns of Nam Dinh and Van Cu, and even discusses the soup’s complex political history. She translates part of poet and satirist Tu Mo’s “An Ode to Pho,” written in 1934 during French occupation:
Don’t downgrade pho by labeling it a humble food,
Even the city of Paris has to welcome pho.
Compared to other international foods of note,
It is delicious yet inexpensive and is often crowned the best.
Living in this world without eating pho is foolish,
Upon death, the altar offerings should include it.
Now go savor pho, or you shall crave it.
When it comes to the preparation of this dish, Nguyen lays an excellent foundation for beginners and devotees alike. She dedicates an entire chapter to pho basics, the aptly titled “Pho Manual.” Here she explores nuances: How can you find high-quality banh pho, the flat rice noodles used in the soup? What combination of beef bones yield the clearest broth? How do you set up a pho assembly line in your kitchen such that your noodles won’t get soggy before you get a chance to eat them?
Nguyen’s book operates a bit like a choose-your-own-soup adventure: choose your broth, choose your meats, choose your garnishes. She has recipes for all of them. She even has recipes for homemade hoisin and her riff on Cholimex chile sauce, not available in the U.S. but, she writes, brilliant with Vietnamese food. (And “definitely no sriracha, which Mom deemed un-Vietnamese.”) There are also recipes for pho noodle dishes—a beef and rapini noodle dish I tried was a particularly flavorful weeknight treat—dishes inspired by pho, dishes that make use of pho by-products like rendered beef fat, and even a couple pho cocktails.
Nguyen’s recipes are a cook’s dream: well tested, easy to follow, and written in a friendly, conversational style. This is not unique to The Pho Cookbook; cooking from any of Nguyen’s books is like listening to an incredibly patient friend explain a recipe over the telephone.
Nguyen gave me the courage to attempt real-deal pho, from scratch. I went with the version Nguyen grew up eating: the Saigon-Style Beef Pho. This recipe, she writes, is a combination of her mother’s southern-style beef pho combined with a couple Americanisms (onions in place of shallots, for example), employed once her family moved to the U.S. The broth is coaxed from beef bones—marrow, knuckle, and neck—over the course of three hours, and flavored with charred ginger and onions, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and Chinese yellow rock sugar.
The result was a silky, complex broth with incredible body—worlds different from the murky stuff made from seasoning packets that you find all too often at strip-mall pho shops. It was not clear, exactly, but clear-ish, which I am counting as success on my first try. I topped my pho with bo vien (springy beef meatballs with a liver-like funk thanks to a couple tablespoons of fish sauce), raw, thinly sliced ribeye, and a riot of leafy herbs. It was smashing.
But you don’t always have three or four hours to baby a stock. Instead, you could make Nguyen’s quick, weeknight chicken pho by doctoring up some store-bought stock and shredding a supermarket rotisserie chicken. Or go vegan: Nguyen offers recipes that mimic the flavors of chicken and beef pho broth, without using any meat at all. You could make pressure cooker broth to get that deep, rich body in half the time, or choose a version of the broth that reflects the traditions of Hanoi, fragrant with dried seafood and black cardamom. You could even go adventurous with less-traditional variations like seafood or lamb pho.
This is the true strength of the book. Unlike other books in the single subject/epic dish genre that attempt to rigidly adhere to the nebulous concept of “authenticity,” Nguyen’s recipes are flexible and roomy. Short on time? She’s got options for you. Can’t find rock sugar? Try maple syrup. Have dietary restrictions? On a budget? No problem. And she doesn’t need you to follow them perfectly: “These recipes will not be ruined if you’re not 100 percent on the mark,” she writes. “Have a sense of your goal and get into the pho spirit.”
This flexibility is, in fact, an intrinsic philosophy of pho, a dish that evolved and changed as it moved through Vietnam and, later, the world. Customization is as vital to pho as broth and rice noodles. Throughout the book, Nguyen repeatedly references the personal reasons behind subtly different pho habits: At home, her mother takes her pho with chili and mint, in the style of her Northern Vietnamese youth, yet in restaurants, she adds Southern embellishments like she learned in Saigon. Nguyen describes eating pho with a cousin, discussing the Communist takeover of the 1970s while adding bean sprouts to the morning’s soup. “For people who experienced extra hardship, there’s a smidgen of defiance” to piling on the garnishes, writes Nguyen.
Her recipes make this famous soup accessible to anyone who would make it. A book like this could have been a narrow, strict treatise, focusing on a fictional One True Pho. Instead, Nguyen opens readers to an entire world of pho and pho-like dishes, and in doing so celebrates the very spirit of the soup itself.
As she puts it: “Follow the recipes in this book to establish your pho skills, then confidently experiment. Pho has never been a static dish with only one recipe. Build on the foundation that I’ve given you here.”
And go savor pho.