There are few better comfort foods than Vietnamese phở. When I'm on the verge of a cold or in need of a culinary pick-me-up, I sit down to a restorative bowl of aromatic broth, slippery rice noodles, and fresh, customizable garnishes.
Between the broth, noodles, and assorted garnishes — like onions, herbs, chiles, and lime — phở (pronounced "fuh" not "foe") is a wonderful interplay of textures and flavors. Traditionally, the soup is made with beef or chicken bones. Vegetarian versions, called phở chay, may be found at Buddhist establishments or restaurants catering to contemporary, Western clientele but, sadly, these often leave much to be desired.
In the interest of making vegetarian phở at home, I consulted my mother, who recalled her experience living in a Vietnamese Buddhist community that made meat-free phở broth with a medley of spices, ginger, and lots of carrots. This recipe is my interpretation. While it admittedly lacks the richness of meat-based phở, it's still quite fragrant and filling without being heavy. There's also room to make it your own by adding different proteins or vegetables. I continue to work on perfecting the broth, so let me know what you think!
Even though we're edging our way into warmer weather, I could eat this comforting soup all summer long.
One of the things I love about this pho is that it's sort of like a make-your-own-adventure recipe. The noodles and broth are a staple. But beyond that it's up to you to choose toppings — like tofu, seitan, mushrooms, and greens — as well as a lengthy list of optional garnishes. Choose as many or as few as you like.
Normally when given the option of toppings, I like to go all in. The more toppings, the merrier. This vegetarian pho is an exception, though. The broth, which picks up great flavor from the spices, a slight sweetness from the carrots, and the subtlest of charred aromas from the onion and ginger, is what truly makes this soup for me. I prefer keeping the toppings to a minimum so I can let the broth stand out and take center stage.
For the broth:
1 large onion, peeled and halved
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and halved lengthwise
3-inch cinnamon stick, preferably Vietnamese cassia-cinnamon
1 star anise
2 whole cloves
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
4 cups unsalted vegetable stock or broth
2 teaspoons soy sauce
4 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
For the noodles:
1/2 pound dried flat rice noodles (known as bánh phở; use 1/16", 1/8", or 1/4" width depending on availability and preference)
For the toppings (choose a few):
Protein such as fried or baked tofu, bean curd skin, or seitan
Vegetables such as bok choy, napa cabbage, or broccoli
For the garnishes (choose a few):
1/2 large onion, very thinly sliced
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 chile pepper (Thai bird, serrano, or jalapeño), sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges
1/2 cup bean sprouts
Large handful of herbs: cilantro, Thai basil, cilantro
Hoisin sauce, Sriracha (optional)
To make the broth, char the onion and ginger over an open flame (holding with tongs) or directly under a broiler until slightly blackened, about 5 minutes on each side. Rinse with water.
In a large pot, dry-roast cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and coriander over medium-low heat, stirring to prevent burning. When you can smell the aroma of the roasted spices, add vegetable stock, soy sauce, carrots, and charred onion and ginger.
Bring broth to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain and keep hot until ready to serve.
Make the noodles while the broth simmers. Place the noodles in a large bowl and cover with hot water. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender but still chewy. Drain. (If soaking does not soften the noodles enough, blanch them in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds.)
Prepare the toppings as desired – slice and cook tofu, lightly steam or blanch vegetables, and so on. Toppings should be unseasoned or only lightly seasoned so as not to interfere with the flavor of the broth.
To serve, divide the noodles between two bowls. Arrange toppings over noodles. Ladle the broth between the two bowls. Serve with garnishes on the side, which diners should add to taste.
This recipe has been updated — first published January 2010.