In The Kitchen With Lisa and Zarah

It's not everyday that you get invited over to make Pho. That may be partly because authentic Pho is not made at home as often anymore. It's a day-long process—one that involves chopping, toasting, grilling, simmering, with a healthy dose of patience. It could be turned into a day of laughter, sharing and bonding. And that's exactly what we did.

Back in August, when my friend Zarah offered to teach us the Art of Making Pho, my lovely neighbor Lisa and I signed up instantly. We were already hooked onto the Vietnamese shrimp rolls with dipping sauce, both of which Zarah makes effortlessly. Born in the Philippines, Zarah married into a traditional Vietnamese family, where her mother-in-law trained her to cook homestyle Vietnamese food. Zarah is a woman of many talents, apart from being very hard-working. She used to own and manage an ethnic Asian grocery store, working long hours to sustain her family. Today she is a successful real estate agent in Boulder County. As charming as she is funny, there's never a dull moment when Zarah is around!

Lisa is an angel. She's also my neighbor. If I had to describe Lisa in a few words, I would simply say this: Lisa embraces. She casts a supportive net and welcomes you into her clan. I am particularly in awe of her parenting skills. Her three children, each very different from the other, stand testimony to the sheer breadth of her skills.

Lisa and Zarah, two awesome women

vegetables were peeled, chopped and diced

aromatics were grilled whole

spices were toasted for the broth

beef bones were parboiled and scum skimmed off

While the bones, tripe and tendons were being parboiled, Zarah introduced us to some new tastes and flavors. First, it was the White Fungus Bird's Nest drink. I wasn't sure I wanted to try it but I put my fears aside and sipped on a clear drink with a whitish soft jelly floating it.

Zarah introduced us to Bird's Nest drink

Zarah explained that there is a little bird, rather like a swallow, that makes its nest from threads of its own saliva instead of twigs. The saliva hardens when exposed to air.

By this time, another neighbor had wandered in, following the aromas that filled the neighborhood. Together, we toasted with bird spit softened in slightly sweet water. It wasn't memorable for me and I won't be seeking this drink again but I was glad to have stepped out of my comfort zone to try something new.

We toasted each other with Bird's Nest drink

simmering the pho

As the pho simmered, Zarah also had us try cured pork with basil, garlic and red chile. Now this is something that I would eat again and gladly so!

Cured pork appetizer

Lisa pauses to look at the crazies in her kitchen

While the pho simmered, I took off to attend to some errands and prepare the house for friends from Chicago who were going to spend a few days with us. When I got back, Zarah had a small mountain of rice paper rolls for us to dig into. She had also quickly put together some nuoc cham as dipping sauce for these rolls.Who said it was only about pho?

Zarah rolled us some rice paper rolls

Once the pho was ready, Zarah's son took over as the chief assembler and in a large soup bowl, he piled noodles, thinly sliced raw meat, tendons and tripe for the adventurous, sliced onions, and then drowned it all with the still simmering broth.

Vincent does the honors

Zarah then encouraged us to add basil as well as condiments like patis (fish sauce), sriracha sauce or chile-garlic sauce, hoisin sauce and a good squeeze of lime.

This has got to be the best pho I have ever slurped, eaten and worn. I need to carry an extra tee when I'm eating pho as I end up with a fair amount on myself.

I am in Vietnam currently and I can tell you that this pho that we made together in August is just as good as, if not better, than any authentic pho I have had thus far. And, trust me, I've been eating a lot of pho as I can't get enough.

Vietnamese Pho

  • 12 lbs of beef bones
  • 4 lbs of oxtail
  • small tray of tripe (optional)
  • small tray of tendons (optional)
  • 2 large white onions
  • 1 lb fresh ginger
  • 10 medium carrots
  • 3 large daikon halves
  • 100g cinnamon sticks
  • 50g star anise
  • 8-10 Vietnamese cardamom
  • Thinly sliced meat of your choice (optional)
  • 2 packets flat rice noodles
  • Mint leaves, at least one bunch
  • Basil leaves, at least one bunch
  • Bean sprouts, half packet
  • Cilantro, at least one bunch
  • Spring onions chopped, at least one bunch
  • Onion, thinly sliced
  • Limes or lemon, to your taste
  • Store-bought patis or fish sauce
  • Store-bought Sriracha sauce or chile garlic sauce
  • Store-bought Hoisin sauce
  • salt to taste

slurping and drinking directly from the bowl is encouraged

  1. Parboil beef bones and drain. This helps reduce scum in the later stages.
  2. Parboil tripe and tendons together, if using, and drain. These add a sweet note to the pho.
  3. Grill the onions and ginger, both whole, on a high flame until slightly charred. Do not cover the grill with the lid. When they can be handled, peel the onions and ginger.
  4. Toast the cinnamon, star anise and cardamom on medium heat, tossing or stirring frequently until fragrant. Allow to cool and then smash into smaller pieces, divide into two equal parts and tie up each half in a muslin bag or coffee filters.
  5. Put parboiled bones in a very large pot and add 20qt of water.
  6. Add grilled and peeled onions and ginger, parboiled tripe and parboiled tendons. Also add as many diced carrots and diced daikon as the pot will hold.
  7. Also add one muslin bag containing half of the toasted spices.
  8. Continue to skim off scum as required but don't take out too much of the floating fat.
  9. Take out the tripe when it can be pierced with a chopstick. Similarly for tendons, except they take longer to reach that point. Do not discard either. Allow to cool and then slice thinly to serve with pho.
  10. After taking out the tripe and tendons, add the second muslin bag of toasted spices and any leftover diced vegetables. If there are still some that will not fit in the pot, slice them thin and serve with the pho.
  11. Simmer the pho for at least 4 hours, more if possible. 
  12. Season with salt as needed.
  13. Wash and trim the mint, basil and cilantro.
  14. Chop spring onions and cut lemons or limes into wedges.
  15. Inspect bean sprouts, rinse and discard any darkened or mangled sprouts.
  16. Follow instructions on the packet to cook flat rice noodles. Usually, they require a good soak in cold water until soft, followed by a quick rolling dip in boiling water, and then drain.
  17. For assembly, ensure that all ingredients are close at hand. In a large soup bowl, add a small quantity of noodles, thinly sliced raw meat (if using), sliced tendons (optional), sliced tripe (optional), sliced onions, cilantro and chopped spring onions. Pour extremely hot broth over this so that the meat cooks in the hot broth. .
  18. Top off with condiments of your choice: hoisin sauce, chile-garlic sauce, a good dash of lemon or lime juice.
  19. Garnish with torn basil and mint leaves.

my bowl of homemade pho

  1. All quantities in this recipe are approximate. Feel free to adjust to your tastes.
  2. Cambodians add lemon grass to their pho for additional flavor; you could, too!
  3. If you're like me and you've never used tripe or tendon, you don't have to. But I will attest that they add a wonderful depth to pho. If you're feeling adventurous, you can ask for small trays at the meat counter or at your butcher's.
  4. Traditionally, in Vietnam, beef bones are dried on the roof before using in pho.
  5. Zarah shared three rules of stock making with us: Don't season; Don't cover; Don't boil. It wasn't her grandmother or her mother-in-law who shared this wisdom with her. We laughed when she told us she heard it on Food Network and has applied it to her pho ever since!
It's almost Thanksgiving and this will be the first time in a very long time that we are far away from home during this time of the holidays. For the past several years, we have celebrated with Lisa and her family and staggered back across the street with heavy bellies and satiated souls. Lisa and I had a good chuckle over Bon Appetit's recent suggestion that a Tandoori Turkey might be something new to try for this Thanksgiving. New? That's what we did last year! We injected the turkey with a tandoori-style marinade, rubbed it with the thickened spice mixture that could not be injected into the turkey, tucked garlic and peppercorn into little pockets in the flesh and then roasted it after marinating it overnight in the refrigerator. Those of my friends who are in the know will have an even bigger chuckle when they read the recipe and then the method for garam masala in BA's recipe. BA can be forgiven; it's Thanksgiving after all!

Tomorrow, I will be digging into hot pots and bowls of endless noodle soup, giving thanks for all the good people in my life: my family, my hood, my circle of friends and especially my new Vietnamese friends who have bent over backwards to make our stay enjoyable!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Bong Mom said...

Have fun Manisha. For starters I thought you were cooking Pho in Vietnam and I know you could do it. This is closer home and as wonderful.
Have a lovely Thanksgiving

Nichole said...

I am going to make Pho from scratch, thanks to you and your friends. Thank you!

Pelicano said...

Oh, that whole thing is SO nice! Happy thanksgiving to you and all who you are surrounded by-


Miri said...

Looks so so good!!

Anita said...

I do want to try this one day though it seems too much work for one person. Will have to substitute with mutton bones though. Maybe I'll try when Ani is home though he is not too fond of far-eastern flavours which I LOVE!

You are so ahead of the are the trend-starter! :-)

Have a great time in Vietnam.

Indian Food Rocks said...

BM, we're here for a wedding and getting some travel in at the same time. There are two ceremonies in two cities that are about 350km apart. We took a detour to a town in the Central Highlands and are now in the city where the second ceremony will be held. I would have loved to take a cooking class! Medha even found a 4hr cooking class in nearby Nha Trang but it's too much to fit into the schedule. Today we're relaxing in resort by a very windy beach, after a 5-hour bone-rattling journey from the mountain town. Traveling within Vietnam by road is very like traveling within India but, say, about 20 years ago. It's exhausting and I do want some down time with my family. I'm making up for not taking any classes by eating everything in sight: rambutan, longan, jackfruit, pho, mi quang, noodle soups, quails eggs, various types of banh mi, fish, mmmm! Saigon beer is cheaper than bottled water. ;-D

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Nichole, you can make the broth and keep it in the refrigerator or even freeze it, like you would any other broth. I haven't seen mint served with any pho so far in the three cities we have been in, as well as on the road. Hoisin sauce was served with pho only in Saigon.

The Mi Quang we had on the road to the Central Highlands had thinly sliced banana flower and stem! And shrimp rice crackers!

Hugs to you and your two handsome boys!

Pel, yes, it was so very nice! Like Thanksgiving in August! Hope you have a restful, calm Thanksgiving!

Miri, it tasted even better!

Anita, make it and freeze it or pull some out every day and slurp on it. You can store soaked noodles in your freezer. You wouldn't need to boil them, Just reheat them in the microwave with a damp paper towel or covered with some water in a bowl so that they don't dry up. I keep thinking of you and it would have really been a blast to take this trip with you. Medha, quite surprisingly, is being very adventurous and that helps a great deal!

GB said...

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Manisha.

anthony stemke said...

That soup has got to be great, wonderful spices.
Thanks for posting.

notyet100 said...

Cooking together is always fun,.,this one looks yum,..

Mandira said...

Lovely Manisha! This looks so delicious. have been reading all about your Vietnam trip and love the pictures of food esp the cute animal pastries.

Caroline said...

I am so excited to have found this link! In high school I had a classmate that was Vietnamese and if I ate over, that meant I cooking with the gals in the kitchen. I wish I remembered how to make everything! Although being Korean I think my mother would of been offended if I went to my friends kitchen to cook everyday (ha!) I love Pho and have been trying to find a recipe that comes close to the one that I remember. I think this might just be the one!!! Love the photos and the story about the birds nest drink. I actually watched a show on tv where people were collecting the nests and were amazed at the risks they took to collect them. The nests are highly prized and when taken, the birds just make another one again. :)

Indian Food Rocks said...

GB, I did! I hope you did, too!

Anthony, you bet it is! Pho for breakfast was the norm when we were in Vietnam!

notyet, very true! I'll bet you have friends you like to cook with, too!

Mandira, it is! That pastry shop was a visual treat! And so unusual. I might just have to post those pics on IFR even though the quality isn't that great.

Caroline, you're Korean? I need to go to Korea just for the food. If airline food can taste that good, then real food on the ground must be incredible! We had ssambab on the way back. I am in love with the bean paste! And yes, this Pho was amazing. Let me know if it is anything like what your friend's mom used to make.

The Bird's Nest drink is an interesting concept. I often wonder how they even came up with that idea! It's good to know that the birds just make another one and aren't harmed in the process!