Pho warms the belly and the soul alike

When the days get shorter and colder, Vietnam’s national dish is perfect for soup season

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      It’s not all bad when the days start getting shorter and the weather gets worse: wintertime means soup season. Pho, the national dish of Vietnam—a noodle soup that’s pronounced “fuh” and not “foe”—is one type in particular that warms the belly and the soul.

      Although its origins are subject to some debate, pho seems to have become popularized in the early 20th century, sold by food hawkers on the streets of Hanoi, according to Andrea Nguyen’s The Pho Cookbook: Easy to Adventurous Recipes for Vietnam’s Favorite Soup and Noodles. These days, it’s often eaten morning, noon, and night throughout that country and the world.

      “Anthony Bourdain once said he stayed in Vietnam for 30 days, and every single morning he had a bowl of pho,” says Chi Le, chef and owner of Chi Modern Vietnamese Kitchen (1935 West 4th Avenue). “He never got tired of it. I’m like Anthony Bourdain: I can have it every day.”

      At her Kitsilano restaurant, Le—who was a MasterChef Vietnam contender before moving to Vancouver—serves two types of the healthy, satisfying soup: pho ga (chicken) and pho dac biet (beef).

      She has also started offering private cooking classes, with regularly scheduled courses in the works.

      “A lot of people want to make pho at home,” Le tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “Pho is not hard to make, but there’s no one recipe; it’s all about regions. People from the north to the middle to the south of Vietnam, all have regional flavours. The south is a little bit more sweet; the middle would have more depth of tone; in the north of Vietnam, they want it a little bit lighter.”

      Chi Modern Vietnamese Kitchen owner Chi Le serves two types of the healthy, satisfying soup: pho ga (chicken) and pho dac biet (beef).

      Hailing from Nha Trang, in the coastal, central area of Vietnam, Le prepares a fragrant broth that takes about 12 hours to make if using beef bones cooked at a low simmer or seven or eight hours with chicken bones. An angry boil, she says, will make soup murky and milky. From there, she adds ingredients such as black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seed, and more.

      “Roasted fennel seed gives a deeper flavour and I add a few pieces of dried ginseng,” she says. “At this time of year, I’d use a bit more clove because it keeps you warmer.”

      To make your own comforting, steaming bowl, Le shares her signature recipe.

      Chicken Pho


      3 whole chickens, 1.5 to 2 pounds each

      8 litres water

      3 white jumbo onions, charred

      6 large shallots, charred

      150 grams ginger (1 piece), charred and bruised

      20 grams coriander seed, toasted

      15 grams fennel seed, toasted

      15 grams star anise, toasted

      5 grams cloves, toasted

      5 grams cinnamon

      40 grams salt

      50 grams rock sugar

      30 grams chicken powder

      Good-quality fish sauce

      Fresh pho noodles (quantity as desired); green onion (finely chopped); white onion (thinly sliced, rinsed in cold water, and strained to dry); fresh cilantro and basil; bean sprouts; lime leaves, thinly sliced; fresh red chilies; black pepper; and fresh lime wedges to taste.

      Sriracha and hoisin sauce for dipping the chicken (optional).


      Wash the chicken with salt, then rinse well with cold water.

      Remove breasts and keep in the fridge for later use.

      In a pot, bring water to a boil, then add the chickens (no breasts). When the water comes to a boil again, remove all of the foam that floats on top and repeat until no more foam appears.

      Add onion, shallot, ginger, and all the spices.

      When water comes to a boil again, remove foam. Reduce heat to medium low; there should only be very small bubbles on the surface. Cook for up to six or seven hours, covered.

      Remove and discard the chickens, onion, shallot, ginger, and herbs and spices. Bring the broth to a boil again, then add the chicken breasts.

      Remove foam. Add rock sugar, salt, and chicken powder. Depending on the size of the chicken breasts, cook for 6 to 8 minutes. Remove breasts, set aside.

      Strain broth with fine-mesh sieve. Put broth back in pot and bring to a boil when ready to serve.

      Thinly slice chicken breast or tear apart with your fingers to desired size; add to broth.

      Place noodles in bowl. Add chicken breast, green onion, white onion, cilantro, basil, and boiling broth with 1 to 2 teaspoons of fish sauce.

      Top with bean sprouts, lime leaf, red chili, and freshly cracked black pepper.

      Sriracha and hoisin sauce should only be used for dipping the chicken, not added to the broth.