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Two Ways to Have Your Pho

Return the bones to the pot, along with the tendon, if using, and brisket. Add 4 quarts (16 cups) of water and salt and bring almost to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover partially and simmer actively, skimming away any scum that forms. Simmer the stock for a total of 6 to 7 hours or overnight. If using brisket, remove it after it is cooked through, about 1 1/2 hours. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bones and tendon, if using; reserve the tendon.

Meanwhile, over a flame or in a dry skillet, char the ginger and onions lightly on all sides. (May instead roast the ginger and onions on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes.) After the broth has simmered for 6 or 7 hours, add the ginger and onion and continue to simmer until the broth is well flavored and amber-colored, about 1 more hour.

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

Strain the broth through cheesecloth or a fine sieve, pressing gently on the onion to remove any juices. Discard the solids. Measure broth and add water as needed to bring total amount of liquid to16 cups.

If using a mix of loose spices, toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat until aromatic to release their flavorful essential oils. Pour the strained broth into a pot and bring to a boil. Stir in the rock sugar and fish sauce. Add the spices, wrapped inside cheesecloth or tucked inside a tea infuser ball if desired, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or longer if a stronger star anise presence is desired. (Keep in mind that too much of the spice can be overpowering.) Remove and discard the spices. For maximum flavor, let the soup rest an hour or so before serving, or make it a day ahead so the flavors have a chance to meld. (May refrigerate for up to several days. Any fat in the broth will congeal on the surface and can be spooned away, but leave some for flavor.)

For the assembled pho: Preheat large, deep serving bowls in a 200-degree oven.

Bring the broth to a boil and let it boil vigorously.

If using dried rice noodles, place them in a large bowl or deep casserole and cover with boiling water. As the noodles wilt, press them into the hot water and set aside until softened completely. Drain and set aside.

You will need either raw beef or the brisket reserved from the broth. If using raw beef, freeze it for at least 10 minutes and up to 2 hours before slicing. (Partially frozen meat is easier to slice.) Slice the raw beef very thinly so that it will cook through in the broth. If using the brisket or tendon, thinly slice it.

Halve the onion then thinly slice it into moon-shaped wedges.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place a portion of the cooked or fresh noodles in a large strainer and dip them into the boiling water until heated through, 5 to 10 seconds. Transfer the noodles to a heated bowl and repeat with the remaining noodles.

Place some sliced beef and onion into each bowl and ladle about 2 cups of hot broth over the noodles. If the beef is raw, it should cook through fairly quickly. Add some of the scallions, cilantro and basil. Repeat the process for each bowl. Pass the bowls to individual guests and allow them to add the remaining bean sprouts, chili peppers and condiments to taste.

Recipe tested by Renee Schettler; e-mail questions to food@washpost.com

Ingredients too variable for meaningful analysis.

Le Thiep's Pho Ga

(Chicken Pho)

8 servings

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