A Beginner's Guide to Chicken Pho
Author & Photographer: Alyce Oh
Once in a blue moon, I like to step out of the hum drum of meal prepping and venture into the foray of project cooking. Pho, the internationally beloved Vietnamese noodle soup that is a personal favorite, has been on the list of prospective projects for a while. For a seasoned Vietnamese cook, whipping up an amazing batch of pho is probably second-nature, but there is actually a complex methodology behind the creation of a perfectly clear, seasoned, and flavorful broth—the most essential component of the entire dish. What follows is more of a brief walk-through of my experience with the pho-making process—triumphs and errors included—rather than a recipe. Measurements are included, but they really only serve to formalize what was really just lots of eye-balling and intuition.
Since this was my first attempt at pho broth, I decided to opt for chicken pho, or Pho Ga, instead of the more popular beef pho, Pho Bo. My reason for this was twofold. One, chicken is cheaper and readily obtainable—no need to go looking for 2-3 different types of beef bones on top of actual cuts of meat—and two, I thought it’d be easier to get a clear, golden broth since chicken meat and bones are generally cleaner (lacking blood and other impurities) than those of beef. After referring several recipes online, I decided to opt for a whole 3 ½ pound chicken. In hindsight, it would have been ideal to get extra chicken parts for a richer broth, but the whole chicken was sufficient enough. Once you make homemade broth, you’ll never go back to that boxed atrocity they sell in stores.
A common technique used to create clear broth is to parboil your chicken (or any other meat you’re using) before using it to make your actual broth. This ensures that most of the gunk comes out with the first boil, which you can remove by pouring out all the liquid from the pot and rinsing off your meat. After the first boil, your chicken should be about ¾ of the way cooked through. At this point, you can debone/deskin your chicken, cut up the meat into as aesthetically-sound pieces as possible, and set them inside. Toss the skin and bones back into the pot for the creation of the final broth. Things don’t look too pretty at this point, but that’s how you know it’s legit. Bring the water to a boil, then a low simmer for about an hour and a half.
Chicken aside, the next most important ingredient for the broth are the spices. One of my favorite things about pho is the fact that it’s so fragrant—no surprise considering the copious variety of spices that are required to create the perfect pho flavor profile. The typical spices are as follows: cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, black peppercorns, cardamom, and coriander. Pho spice packs are available in most Asian grocery stores, but if you’re less fortunate like me, you’ll have to do a bit of hunting to acquire each individual spice. Every recipe calls for toasting the spices in a dry pan or skillet to release their full flavor potential.
The third component of the pho broth is the fresh aromatics. The most essential are onion and ginger, but if you want to get more fancy, you can add a variety of other alliums like leeks, scallions, and shallots. What is not up for compromise, however, is the charring of the aromatics until they’re black on their cut surfaces. Much like with the toasting of the spices, the charring “activates” the ingredients and lends the broth a subtly sweet and smoky edge. However, a word of caution: while the charred onion and ginger deepen the flavor of your broth, they also have the tendency to darken its color. The flavor will be delicious, but if you’re aiming for a clearer broth, scrape off any excessive charring before adding them to your pot. I, for one, could have definitely used this advice beforehand.
When the broth has finished simmering for an hour and a half, strain it though a paper-towel lined sieve so that all the bits of skin and bone get separated out. Return the broth to the pot and throw in your toasted spices and charred onion/ginger. Simmer the broth for another hour and a half or so, being careful not to let the broth become too spicy. If you must, remove the spices prematurely, but let the onion and ginger continue to flavor the broth for the entire hour and a half.
To finish off the broth, remove the onion and ginger. Strain the broth a second time if there are any stray bits left behind. Salt the broth, give it a taste, then add enough water to reconstitute what’s been evaporated without watering it down. Finally, season the broth with a bit of fish sauce and rock sugar. Rock sugar is milder in sweetness than white granulated sugar, and should only be added in sufficient amount to take the bitter edge off the broth from the spices and charred onion/ginger.
To assemble a bowl of pho, take some rice noodles—fresh or dried—and blanch them until cooked through in a pot of boiling water. Put the noodles in a bowl (the larger the better), along with sliced onions and chopped cilantro. Take the sliced chicken from before and give them a heat-through in the boiling broth for a couple minutes. Place the chicken on top of the noodles, then pour over the hot broth. Mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeno slices, and lime wedges are necessary accompaniments to any bowl of pho, along with hoisin sauce and sriracha for dipping the meat.
Cook Time: 4-5 hours
One 3 1/2 pound whole chicken
1 large ginger, halved
2 cinnamon sticks
5 pieces of star anise
1 tbsp cloves
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1/2 tbsp cardamom seeds
fish sauce, to taste
rock sugar, to taste
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Mung bean sprouts, as desired
Thai basil, as desired
1 jalapeño, sliced into rings
2 limes, sliced into wedges
hoisin sauce, as desired
Sriracha sauce, as desired