WHAT: Instant pho bo noodle soup mix, the answer to the prayers of all the geographically misplaced and physically unable foodies who make the regrettable mistake of watching a Vietnam street-food video on Youtube pass 10 PM. We know who we are.
WHY: Widely known as a labor-intensive and time-consuming dish, yet cruelly happens to be the most desired slurp from Southeast Asia in North America, pho bo has been tormenting addicts who are kept apart from a proper fix due to cold hard geography, or, something no less ruthless, a human condition called sloth. But this barrier is no more, my friends. Because what is mankind if not the extraordinary will to cheat its way through shortcomings?
HOW: Every single aromatics and spices that are used in the traditional preparation of pho bo undergoes the exact same treatment in this recipe, the charring of the onion and ginger, the roasting of shrimp paste, the calculated balance of spices. The only difference is that the mixture is blended together with an ultra-reduction of store-bought beef broth and fish sauce, into a smooth, saucy seasoning. When the craving hits, the complete obliteration of the ingredients allows their full and speedy release of flavors and aroma where they dissipate into more beef broth (don’t worry, still store-bought), creating a marvelously close-tasting broth to the ones that take hours, all in just 2 minutes. From this point on, all it needs is a mandatory fine-tuning of lemon juice, sliced onion and fresh herbs to bring it quintessentially Vietnamese. Then, a couple squirts of Sriracha and hoisin sauce to make it non again.
Here you ask, is this the same as the pho bo you tasted in Saigon where you lost a tender piece of your soul behind and was left to wonder this earth forever incomplete? Pffff, of course not! A cheat is a cheat. Anyone who’s tried liposuction will tell you they don’t look like Gisele Bündchen quite yet. But I will say this, that in between all the sad Vietnamese restaurants provided by the cities where I’ve stayed in the past almost two decades – New York, Taipei, Hong Kong, Beijing – or the alternative of plowing through 12 hours of labor whenever the craving hits, honestly, I prefer this instant mix over any of the above. And if you know me at all, that’s saying a lot.
FOR ALL THE GEOGRAPHICALLY MISPLACED AND PHYSICALLY UNABLE FOODIES, WHO MAKE THE REGRETTABLE MISTAKE OF WATCHING A VIETNAM STREET-FOOD VIDEO ON YOUTUBE PASS 10 PM
- 4 cups (950 grams) store-bought premium low sodium beef broth (see note *)
- 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
- 1" (20 grams) peeled ginger, sliced
- 1 tsp Lee Kum Kee shrimp paste
- 2 star anise
- 8 whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 tsp ground fennel
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 lemongrass, roughly cut
- 1/4 cup +2 tbsp (90 grams) fish sauce
- 1 1/2 tsp light brown sugar
- 2 tsp MSG, optional (see note **)
- 2 cups store-bought premium low sodium beef broth (see note *)
- 3 1/2 tbsp instant pho bo mix (see note ***)
- Fish sauce to season
- Rice vermicelli, blanched before using
- Thinly sliced beef, beef balls, and any other topping of your choice to serve
- Thinly sliced onions, scallion, bean sprouts, fresh mints, fresh Thai basil, lemon wedges to serve
- Sriracha and hoisin sauce to serve.
- In a wide and deep skillet, bring 4 cups of beef broth to a boil over high heat, and continue to cook until it is reduced down to 1 cup, about 15 to 20 minutes. The reason why we want to use a skillet instead of a pot is because the wide surface area will help the evaporation go much faster.
- Meanwhile, place a baking rack directly on top of the stove and turn the flame to high. Toast the quartered onion and ginger until they are thoroughly charred on the surfaces and edges. Remove the ginger first, then smear the shrimp paste on the surfaces of the onion, and toast again for the paste is blistered and dry, about 30 seconds. Transfer all of it into a blender and set aside.
- In a small skillet, dry-toast star anise, whole cloves and peppercorns over medium-low heat, until it starts to smoke and the peppercorns start to pop. Remove the skillet from the heat, and add ground fennel, ground coriander, ground cinnamon and ground white pepper, and return to the heat. Stirring diligently, and dry-toast just for a few seconds more until fragrant. Transfer immediately into the same blender.
- Add lemongrass, fish sauce, light brown sugar and MSG into the same blender. Then add the reduced beef broth. Blend on high for 2 full minutes until smoothly pureed. Transfer into an air-tight jar and keep in the fridge until needed. Can be kept for up to 1 month in the fridge. Mix before using.
- You can also divide the mix into ice-cube moulds then freeze them.
- TO ASSEMBLE (for one serving): In a small pot, simmer beef broth and instant pho bo mix together for 2 minutes, then strain the broth through a fine sieve (the finer the sieve the cleaner the broth). Press on the solids to extract as much broth as you can, then discard the solids. Taste the broth and re-season with more fish sauce if needed. Now you cook whatever toppings in this broth, let it be sliced beef, beef balls or etc. Pour the broth over the rice vermicelli, then top of thinly sliced onion, scallions, mint and basils, then serve immediately with a wedge of lime or lemon. Dip in Sriracha and hoisin sauce if desired.
* For low sodium beef broth, I'm using Imagine Organic Beef Broth, but you could also use 365 Everyday Value Organic Beef Broth or Pacific Foods Organic Beef Broth. The reason why I want to use slightly more "premium" brands of broth is because it's such a crucial component in this recipe, the quality of which will significantly affect the final result. So as a general rule of thumb, I will stay away from brands like SWANSON, CAMPBELL'S, or any other broth that contains tomaotes.
** Every bowl of pho bo in Vietnam has MSG. It's practically regarded as a crucial ingredient. I'm not going to argue with that.
*** The instant pho bo mix is what gives the final broth its aroma and spice intensity. This ratio between beef broth and instant pho bo mix (2 cups of broth with 3 1/2 tbsp of the mix) is determined according to my own taste, which provides quite a intense broth. But you can certainly adjust it based on your own liking. If you like a lighter broth, add less mix, and re-season with more fish sauce to make up for the saltiness.