In the mid 19th century, a series of military conquests relegated Vietnam to a French colony within the greater region of French Indochina. This ended almost a millennium of dynastic rule following Vietnamese independence from Imperial China in 939 AD. During World War II, Vietnam, administered by the Vichy French government, was conquered by Japan with the vision of eliminating European colonialism and restoring the autonomy of Asian countries in Southeast Asia (or more accurately, replacing European colonialism with Japanese colonialism). The Viet Minh, led by the Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, shared these anti-Western sentiments but were otherwise no friendlier with their Japanese occupiers than the French. After ongoing armed resistance against the Japanese and the defeat of Japan in the Pacific Theatre by the United States, the Viet Minh would go on to drive the French out of the country with the conclusion of the First Indochina War in 1954.
Nevertheless, traces of French influence can still be found in Vietnamese cuisine – the use of pâté and rice flour baguettes in bánh mì, Vietnamese coffee, and phở noodle soup, which is thought to have derived from the austere French stew pot-au-feu, are all ubiquitous in modern Vietnam and countries with strong Vietnamese immigrant communities. Phở is made from simmering a mirepoix of charred ginger and onions, an aromatic mixture of toasted spices that includes star anise, cardamom, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, and fennel seeds, and a combination of beef parts ranging from sinewy cuts of brisket to marrow-rich leg bones. The broth is then strained and served boiling hot with rice noodles, thinly sliced pieces of ribeye, and a sprightly herb garnish. As the national dish of Vietnam, phở showcases the Vietnamese philosophy of utilizing fresh spices and herbs for flavor rather than dairy or fat, one of the many reasons why their cuisine is among the best and healthiest in the world.
PHỞ TÁI // OXTAIL + SLICED RIBEYE
- 2 large yellow or white onions
- 1 medium piece of ginger, about 5-6″
- 3-4 lbs of beef leg bones, neck bones, or other bones suitable for soup
- 2-3 lbs of oxtail
- 1 lb of brisket or chuck meat (optional)
- Tripe, tendon, or any other beef parts (optional)
- 2-3 tbsp fish sauce
- 1-2 clumps of rock sugar or 2-3 tbsp sugar
- MSG (optional)
- 6-8 pieces of star anise
- 1 tbsp cardamom pods
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2-3 sticks of cinnamon
- 8-10 cloves
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds
- 4-5 thinly sliced pieces of ribeye
- Rice noodles, dry or preferably fresh & frozen
- Thai basil
- Sliced bird’s eye chile peppers
- Lime wedges
Halve the onions and ginger and place them in a baking tray, leaving the skin on. Broil for about 10 minutes on the top rack until the onion and ginger begin to char, then remove and set aside.
Fill a large stockpot (at least 12 quart capacity) with water, place the soup bones and oxtail in the pot, and bring to a rolling boil for about 10 minutes. Skim the scum that forms at the surface of the water with a strainer or ladle and remove the bones and oxtail with metal tongs into a mixing bowl, being careful to rinse off any scum. Empty and wash the stockpot and put in the bones, oxtail, beef, ginger, onions, and rock sugar and cover with cool water. Bring the broth to a boil under high heat and immediately lower down to a simmer.
Gently simmer the broth for at least 5 hours uncovered, skimming the surface occasionally. If using brisket or chuck, remove the meat after 1 hour or until it is fork tender and reserve until serving. Near the end of the cooking time, quickly toast the spices in a pan over medium heat, tie them together in a cheesecloth, and infuse the mixture into the broth for at least 45 minutes.
Using metal tongs, remove and reserve any edible meats for serving. Discard the bones, onions, ginger, and spices and filter the broth through a strainer and cheesecloth. Return the broth to heat and season to taste with salt, sugar, fish sauce, and MSG until it is sufficiently savory, pungent, and sweet.
If using fresh frozen noodles, bring the broth to a rolling boil and briefly blanch the noodles until cooked through, about 30 seconds to a minute. For dry noodles, rehydrate the noodles according to package instructions in a separate pot of water. When ready to serve, arrange individual bowls of hot broth and noodles with sliced ribeye, sliced brisket/chuck, oxtail meat, and fresh garnishes. Hoisin or Sriracha sauce should not be necessary for a properly seasoned broth.