Beef noodle soup

Beef noodle soup

Phơ bo

Street Food Asia
Alan Benson

Two questions I am often asked are, ‘what is “pho?’ and, ‘where does it come from?’ To answer the second, though the exact origins are unclear, rumour has it that pho was created in North Vietnam in the early 20th century. Both Chinese and French cooking heavily influenced the dish, which may have been derived from the French beef stew ‘pot-au-feu’. A hearty, broth-based noodle soup often made with beef or chicken, it varies from region to region. In northern Vietnam the broth is likely to be lighter and made with fewer ingredients, the noodles served with thin beef slices and ginger, or chicken and lime leaves, and accompanied by bean sprouts, herbs, lime and fresh chilli on the side. In southern Vietnam, the broth is a lot sweeter and made from more ingredients, and the accompaniments also include hoisin sauce, fish sauce and chilli paste.

To get my pho fix in Saigon, I visit District 1’s Pho Ngoc on Ho Hao Hon Street, which has been running for over 30 years. The diners are regular customers – I meet a man who tells me his grandma has been eating here since she could remember and that she brings him here every Saturday as a family ritual. Add a poached egg to the broth when ordering for extra silkiness.


Quantity Ingredient
2kg oxtail, cut into 3 cm pieces, (ask your butcher to do this for you)
4 tablespoons sea salt
5 large onions, 4 whole plus 1 finely sliced
150g piece unpeeled fresh ginger
1 x 1kg boneless beef brisket
190ml fish sauce
80g rock sugar or granulated sugar, (see glossary)
1.6kg fresh rice noodles
400g trimmed beef sirloin, thinly sliced
4 spring onions, sliced
coriander sprigs, to garnish
2 bird’s eye chillies
1 lime, cut into wedges
freshly ground black pepper

Spice pouch

Quantity Ingredient
8 whole cloves
5 star anise
2 cassia bark sticks, each about 10 cm in length
1 tablespoon black peppercorns

To serve

Quantity Ingredient
bean sprouts
thai basil
saw-tooth coriander, (see glossary)
hoisin sauce
sriracha chilli sauce


  1. Put the oxtail in a large saucepan and pour over enough cold water to submerge it. Add 3 tablespoons of the salt and leave to soak for 1 hour, then drain.
  2. To prepare the spice pouch, toast each spice separately in a dry frying pan over a medium heat until fragrant. Allow the spices to cool, then pound them into a coarse powder using a mortar and pestle. Add the ground spices to a 40 cm square of muslin and tie up tightly in a knot. Set aside.
  3. Heat a chargrill pan or barbecue grill to medium–high. Cook the whole onions and ginger for 15 minutes, turning regularly, until blackened on all sides. Leave to cool, then remove and discard the blackened skins and chop the flesh.
  4. Put the oxtail, brisket and 6 litres cold water in a stockpot, bring to the boil and cook for 15 minutes, constantly skimming any impurities off the surface (this will ensure a clean, clear broth). Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and add the fish sauce, remaining 1 tablespoon salt, rock sugar, chopped onion and ginger, and the spice pouch. Cover and simmer for 3 hours, or until the stock has reduced by almost half.
  5. Strain the stock through a piece of muslin. Remove the brisket and set aside to cool, then thinly slice. Return the stock to the pot and keep warm.
  6. Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. Divide the noodles into eight portions. Blanch each portion of noodles separately in the simmering water for 5 seconds, then drain and transfer to serving bowls.
  7. Place three or four slices of brisket on top of the noodles in each bowl, followed by three or four slices of raw sirloin. Pour over the hot stock to cover the noodles and beef, then top each bowl with the sliced onion and spring onion. Season with freshly ground black pepper and garnish with coriander sprigs.
  8. Add the chilli slices and a squeeze of lime to each bowl and serve with bean sprouts, Thai basil, saw-tooth coriander and an even mixture of hoisin sauce and sriracha chilli sauce for dipping the meat slices into.
South-East Asian
Street Food
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