Before I left Vietnam I had a goal – I wanted to learn how to make Pho. I had eaten it a few times a week for a year while living in Ho Chi Minh City, and I never tired of it. The thought of eating boiling hot soup in humid 90 degrees somehow appealed to me – as it did to all of the other residents of Vietnam.
Sure, there are plenty of places online with recipes and detailed instructions on how to make Pho, but I wanted to go to the heart of the Pho world – I wanted to be taught by a local. Not only did I want to be taught how to make Pho, but I wanted to do it soup to nuts (no pun intended)! I wanted to start at the beginning, going to the local market to get ingredients bring them home and then make the flavorful broth with help from experts.
Meet the experts, Tuyet and Lee, my best ‘local’ friends in HCMC. They had been showing me around the Vietnam food scene for the past few months and even had me try durian in various forms, so I knew that they would be great teachers in this endeavor.
Just like the locals, I got up early on Saturday morning and drove my motorbike to Tuyet and Lee’s apartment and arrived by 7AM. The Vietnamese are up early in order to beat the heat, and do their daily market shopping. So if I was going to learn how to make Pho the ‘real’ way, then I had to wipe the sleep out of my eyes and get out and join them. But first, before anything else could begin, we had to get some morning energy. We started off our morning with some banh mi sandwiches (pressed meet, egg, pickled vegetables on a baguette) and some café sua da (ice coffee) from the little street side stand outside of Tuyet and Lee’s apartment.
After a mouth-watering breakfast we started walking to the market. Motorbikes zipped by us honking, and big trucks rumbled by billowing black, choking smoke. I had gotten used to walking among this chaotic traffic on the roads, in fact the whole things seemed normal to me. Tuyet had a list of items we needed to get at the market; Pho spices, beef bones, meatballs, fresh greens, noodles, onions, and sprouts. We had decided to make my favorite – pho bo (beef). I also had Tuyet add coconut to the list since I also wanted to try to make rau cau dua (a Vietnamese jello made with fresh coconut juice and agar agar), my favorite dessert in Vietnam.
The market was bustling with activity and motorbikes. I was the only non-Vietnamese person there and attracted a few double takes since tourists/expats didn’t come to this market often. Tuyet and Lee glided through the market with ease stopping and chatting with friends at their favorite stalls. I on the other hand was easily distracted the by variety of things that caught my attention and my senses in the market; for me the markets are a wild form of entertainment which never ceases to amaze me.
While Tuyet and Lee were telling the butcher what we needed for our pho (beef bone cut in 3 inch sections, meatballs, and tender beef sliced paper thin), I was having a laugh picking out some local Vietnamese clothes that all the women wore (they always looked like a comfy pair of pajamas to me but they were worn out in public all the time!) Next we stopped to get fresh noodles (no dry, bagged noodles), and a variety of fresh produce (sprouts, cilantro, basil, sawgrass, mint, lime, peppers, and onions). We picked up 3 coconuts and finally got the key ingredient – the pho spices. The spices are normally a mixture of cinnamon, star anis, ginger, cardamom, coriander, fennel, and clove. Instead of getting all of these things separately, the market sells the spices in a simple packet pressed into cubes.
With our hands full of bags, we took a taxi back to the apartment and the long process of making pho began. First we had to start the soup stock, which is the longest and most important part of any pho. Many people cook the stock all day in huge batches, but we had about 4 hours to cook the stock and it was the first thing we worked on. We started it with water and beef bones. We strained out some of the fat as it boiled and then added the onions – let it cook longer, added the spice packets – let it cook longer, and finally the meatballs – and let it cook longer.
While the broth cooked for hours into perfection Lee went out in the open air apartment hallway with a big knife and started working on opening the coconuts. He had me give it a try, and breaking open a coconut is not as easy as it may look. It took a great deal of work to finally get the coconut open and not spill the coconut water everywhere! We made the rau cau dua and let it gel in the refrigerator.
Tuyet washed up all of the greens and placed them on the table for our essential ‘condiments’ for our pho. The kitchen smelled delicious and we were all starving by the time the pho was ready. Tuyet dished up bowls of the broth and meatballs and then added the thinly sliced beef to the hot broth. It slowly went from raw pink to cooked and tender. It was finally ready!
The broth alone is quite strong – but remember – the broth is just half of the recipe. To eat pho the best part is the putting all of the fresh greens and condiments in it – sort of like a salad bar for your soup. You place in mint and basil leaves as well as my favorite sawtooth leaf and dunk them down into the hot soup. Then add some fresh sprouts, a few slices of pepper if you like it spice, a squeeze of lemon and some Tương Ăn Phở – a basic hoisin sauce. All of the condiments dilute the broth and add fresh flavors.
We sat down by 2PM and enjoyed our meal that we worked on all day to produce. Sure, it’s much easier to simply go and buy a bowl of pho at a sidewalk vendor, but my mission of making it myself was accomplished! I carefully took notes all day so that when I came back to the US to visit I could make it for my friends and family.
I think one of the best things you can take home with you from your travels is not trinkets, but skills.
I asked Tuyet if this was her secret recipe for pho and she surprised me by lauging and saying she had never made pho from scratch before! I was stunned. She was my ‘teacher’ and not once did I think this was her first time making it. She laughed and said, “It’s much easier to just buy it at a restaurant!” It made me appreciate my friends even more for taking an entire day to help me achieve my goal of learning to make pho!
Where do you want to travel to and learn to cook the local food? Pease share in the comments!
More Pho Information and Resources:
Pho Recipe to make at home from Viet World Kitchen. This one includes all of the spices separate – however if you live in an city with Asian grocery stores, you can easily find packets of the pho spices to buy all at once.
To learn about everything Pho – then don’t miss my favorite pho blog – LovingPho.com offering tons of information on the classic soup and Vietnamese food.
If you’d rather just go to Vietnam and eat it at a restaurant – then check out Intrepid Travel’s Food focused tours in Vietnam and other famous mouth watering cities! Their Delicious Discoveries promotion will give you 15% off a delicious discovery trip booked during February or March. Bon appetite! Learn more here at Intrepid’s Delicious Discoveries
By Alison February 9, 2012 - 7:09 am
Oh yum! One of my all time favourites and I would love to learn how to make it from a local, even if it was their first time too 🙂
By Edna February 9, 2012 - 7:53 am
What a labor of love! You must really appreciate good pho now after knowing all the prep and work that goes into it. I certainly do after reading this post…actually, some pho sounds perfect right about now in Paris’ freezing weather!
By Gillian @OneGiantStep February 9, 2012 - 9:09 am
I love, love, love pho and could eat it every day! I’ve always thought that it must be a lot of work to make though and much prefer to head to the local market for a bowl!
By Barbara Weibel February 9, 2012 - 12:07 pm
I love, love, love Pho! But it’s harder finding the vegetarian variety.
By Sherry February 10, 2012 - 12:42 pm
I never thought about that Barbara – you are right – I only see chicken or beef normally!
By Lane February 9, 2012 - 12:22 pm
I wonder if there’s a vegetarian variety? How essential is beef to the dish?
By Lane February 9, 2012 - 12:23 pm
Strike the last comment. I should’ve read Barbara’s comment first.
By Mark H February 9, 2012 - 3:34 pm
I am a huge fan of Pho but like your instructor I have only ever bought it. While I had it in Vietnam many years ago in my one visit there, Australia has a large Vietnamese community who bought their culnirary skills here and pho is available in lots of places and really really beautiful.
By Courts February 9, 2012 - 11:05 pm
After spending 3 weeks in Vietnam last year I definitely regretted not doing any cooking classes while I was there. Any of my attempts to make pho and the versions around town just don’t cut it! Definitely going to give this another shot now.
By Sherry February 10, 2012 - 12:42 pm
The hardest part is getting the beef bones from the butcher and finding the spice packets! The rest is pretty simple…just be patient!
By Tuyet February 17, 2012 - 12:07 am
Vegetarian pho is also delicious. You can use tofu and different kinds of mushrooms instead of beef or chicken. The spices and vegetables are still the same; so, you can still have the right taste.
By Sherry February 17, 2012 - 9:54 am
Thanks Tuyet! And a big THANKS for teaching me everything you know! It was such a fun day – can we do it again?!
By Barbara February 24, 2012 - 1:42 pm
The extensive prep work for pho and other fabulous Vietnamese dishes is the reason why many restaurants only cook one dish!
I love learning to cook local food. In rural India a new mum sat on the floor and showed me how to cook a five course meal on a two-ring gas burner. Since then I’ve poked my nose into many kitchens, always amazed at what can be done in such confined spaces with so little cooking equipment.
But for all my big talk, I usually let my husband do the cooking. He’s Vietnamese, so you know I eat incredibly well!
By Sherry February 26, 2012 - 9:26 pm
ohhh – I’m jealous that your husband cooks Vietnamese food! I agree – whenever I go to other countries and see the massive meals cooked up with very few appliances – it makes me wonder what we are doing in the US with our massive kitchens and cookbooks!
By Amber May 21, 2013 - 8:02 am
I love Vietnam, so I kept smiling as I read this. Cafe sua da, yum! The two piece PJs, hilarious. My husband always tries to woo me into moving to Vietnam by promising me a pair that I can wear in public! As for the pho, it is fascinating to hear about how to make it, particularly with the pho spices. My husband tried making pho once back in the US. It was not too bad, but he had to buy each of the spices separately. I am curious, did you ever make it back in the US? How did it compare?