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Two Ways to Have Your Pho

Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page F06

Pho Bo

(Vietnamese Beef

and Noodle Soup)

Pho 75 restaurateur Le Thiep with his chicken pho. (Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)

Traditional Components

The specific ingredients for a proper pho can be gathered from many supermarkets. But a Vietnamese or Asian grocery store will offer an extensive selection of cuts of beef, produce items and an entire aisle of Asian noodles. Here are some important components of pho:

Pho noodles, also called "rice sticks," are labeled banh in Vietnamese. They come in varying sizes but the kind most commonly served in pho restaurants has the thickness of thin spaghetti. Rice noodles can be purchased dried or fresh in the Asian section of most supermarkets. Star anise, so-called because it is shaped like an eight-pointed star, is the dried seed pod of the star anise flower. It tastes much like anise, only more intense.

Chinese rock sugar is sold in chunks and has a complex flavor that results from a combination of sugars and honey.

Another traditional component of authentic pho is monosodium glutamate, or MSG. MSG has the effect of brightening flavors already present in foods. Americans have long been distrustful of the seasoning, fearing it caused adverse reactions ranging from headaches to chest pain. After commissioning an independent study in 1995, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined that MSG was a "safe food ingredient for most people when eaten at customary levels." People with severe, poorly controlled asthma, or those with "MSG symptom complex" -- intolerance to MSG when eaten in large quantities -- may be affected by the flavor enhancer, the FDA said. The federal agency, in its labeling requirements, says that any monosodium glutamate used as an ingredient in food shall be declared by its common or usual name.

-- Ed Bruske

8 servings

Pho, food of street vendors and home cooks, is not subject to any single formula. Recipes can be closely guarded family secrets. This one suits me, but feel free to adjust it to your taste.

The multifaceted presentation of pho makes it great for entertaining. The preferred method of eating pho is to use chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other. If desired, dab chili and hoisin sauce on the noodles and meat as they make your way to your mouth. Slurp as necessary.

For a beefier-tasting broth, add more beef or bones. You can also do what some Vietnamese cooks do: Add monosodium glutamate, or MSG. A key component of pho found in Vietnamese kitchens and restaurants, MSG gives a vibrant, savory lift to the flavor. If using MSG, add 1 1/2 teaspoons at the same time you add the fish sauce. MSG is available on most supermarket shelves as Accent or in small bags at Asian groceries (see box at top right).

For easy retrieval from the broth, the spices can be tied in cheesecloth or tucked inside a tea ball infuser. You may check your local Vietnamese grocery for a spice sachet made specifically for pho that contains spices already toasted and ground into powder.

For the broth:

4 pounds beef soup bones (preferably shin and knuckle bones, with some meat on them)

8 ounces beef tendon (optional)

2-pound piece of beef brisket or 4 pounds beef shank, beef back ribs or oxtails

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

4-inch piece ginger root (about 4 ounces), unpeeled, thickly sliced

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and quartered

1 package pho spice mixture OR

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