If you’re ready to start eating pho like a pro, pick up a copy of Andrea Nguyen’s The Pho Cookbook and prepare to slurp rice noodles like your life depends on it. Packed with recipes, techniques and advice from all over Vietnam, Nguyen’s newest book is exactly what you need to pump up your beef bone soup game. Kick it off by learning how to garnish a bowl of pho.
Depending on your pho philosophy, you can go super simple or ornate with the tabletop pho garnishes. I keep things easy with regular spearmint (húng) from my garden and chiles that I’ve purchased or grown at home. Conventional limes can be bracing and take over pho flavors, so I prefer garlic vinegar for a light tang; ripe (yellow) Bearss limes and Meyer lemons are good, too. During the warmer months, I’ll add Thai basil (hung quế) because it’s at its peak; ditto for a type of spicy mint (hung cay) sold at Viet markets. When I’m in the mood for bean sprouts, I’ll buy super fresh ones and blanch them to mellow their flavor and texture.
If you’re hard-core, add cilantro (ngò gai) leaves, a hot-weather herb with a strong, slightly sweet cilantro flavor; it’s usually sold at Vietnamese, Latin, and Caribbean markets. In Saigon at the storied Pho Hoa on Pasteur Street, delicate sprigs of rice paddy herb (ngò om) are also included in the platter of garnishes set at each table. Sold at Vietnamese markets and traditionally used for southern Viet seafood soups, rice paddy herb adds a citrusy, cumin-like note to pho. Add or subtract as you like from this guideline.
- 2 handfuls (about 3 ounces) bean sprouts
- 2 or 3 sprigs mint, regular or spicy
- 2 or 3 sprigs Thai basil
- 3 or 4 fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 or 3 sprigs rice paddy herb
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- 1 Thai chile or 1/2 jalapeño, Fresno, or serrano chile, thinly sliced
If you’re blanching the bean sprouts, work it into the pho assembly process and use the pot set up for dunking noodles; the noodle strainer is perfect for the job. Blanch them before starting on the noodles to avoid giving them a starch bath, and put them on their own plate so they don’t leak water on other garnishes. Otherwise, arrange the raw sprouts with the herbs and lime on a communal plate.
If the chile is small, cut it at a sharp angle to yield largish slices that can be easily identified in the bowl. Put the slices in a little dish so they don’t get lost. Before bowl assembly, set the garnishes at the table with any other sides and condiments so you can dive in immediately.
HOT CHILE TIPS
Fresh hot chiles don’t always deliver their spicy punch because of factors like weather. When it’s cold outside, they have less oomph, so add extra to your pho bowls and dishes. Be careful during the summer months when their heat is on. Most of a chile’s heat is contained in the capsaicin glands (membranes) attached to the seeds. Enjoy slices close to the stem if you’re a heat seeker.
During prep, use the cut stem end to scoot chile pieces onto a knife blade and push them into wherever they’re needed. Wash hands with coarse salt if you touch a chile’s cut surfaces.