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Two Ways to Have Your Pho

Plate of fresh bean sprouts

Plate of thinly sliced green chili peppers (jalapeño)

Red chili sauce (such as Tuong Ot Sriracha)


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

A pepper mill

For the broth: In a 425-degree oven, roast the ginger and shallots until slightly softened and lightly browned, about 30 minutes for the shallots and about 45 minutes for the ginger.

Meanwhile, in a large pot bring 4 quarts (16 cups) of water to a boil. Take note of the water level. Season with salt.

Wash the chickens thoroughly under cold water, removing any packages of gizzards from the cavity and any excess fat from near the cavity opening. Gently lower the chickens into the boiling water. Cook at a light boil for 20 minutes, removing any scum that rises to the surface. Remove from the heat, cover and set aside for another 10 minutes to allow the chickens to poach in the hot liquid. Using a sturdy wooden spoon inserted into the cavity, lift the chickens one at a time, tip them to drain any liquid and transfer to a cutting board to cool.

Return the pot to medium-high heat and return the broth to a boil. Replenish any lost liquid that evaporated with boiling water. (There should be a rim of fat and scum where the original water line was.) Wrap the ginger and shallots in cheesecloth, if desired. Add the ginger, shallots and scallions to the broth, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 25 minutes.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the star anise and cinnamon until browned but not burned. If desired, wrap the cinnamon and star anise in cheesecloth or tuck inside a tea infuser. Add the spices and sugar to the broth and continue to cook for another 10 minutes. Strain the broth through cheesecloth or a fine sieve, pressing gently on the shallots to remove any juices. Discard the solids. Measure broth and add water as needed to bring total amount of liquid to 16 cups.

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 and texture.)

Carve the chicken into pieces and use your fingers or a knife to remove the meat from the bones. Cut the meat into bite-size pieces, leaving skin intact if desired.

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

Bring the broth to a boil.

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 until softened completely. Drain and set aside.

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 bowl and repeat with the remaining noodles.

Place some chicken, cilantro and scallions in each bowl. Ladle about 2 cups of hot broth over everything. Repeat the process for each bowl.

Pass the bowls to individual guests and allow them to add the remaining basil, 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.


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