Having grown up eating pho, I thought I knew it as a bowl of tender-chewy flat rice noodles surrounded by fragrant broth and topped with cooked and/or rare meats and aromatics.
But when I was researching recipes for The Pho Cookbook, my mother, an 80-something-year-old woman with a precise food memory, told me about a pho noodle soup topped with a rich, stir fried beef. It’s a northern Vietnamese dish, found in and around Hanoi, the country’s capital. It’s ridiculously good and is called pho ap chao (aka pho tai lan) in Vietnamese.
I developed a traditional recipe for the book but also enjoy this quick version when I don’t have time to simmer broth from scratch.
What "Wok-Kissed" Means
Mom isn’t very touchy-feely, but when she explained the dish to me, she softly pressed her cheek to mine. “Ap means to lightly touch,” she said. “Chao refers to a wok or skillet.”
Then she described the dish of her 1940s childhood: The street vendor briefly warmed fresh rice noodles in his hot wok to let them pick up a bit of wok hei essence and fatty richness. After he emptied the noodles into a bowl, he quickly stir-fried beef, onion, and garlic and added them to the noodles. The broth was ladled into the bowl or served on the side, if the customer desired. It was simple and tasty, she recalled with a wistful smile.
Her description inspired me to name the dish Wok-Kissed Pho. You can prepare it with from-scratch broth (use the pressure cooker or stovetop to simmer beef pho recipes in The Pho Cookbook), but this quick version involves canned broth, making it extra easy and fast to whip up on a weeknight. In the bowl, the broth imbues the beef with extra umami goodness.
Pho Ingredient Pointers
At your local supermarket, mine the Asian foods aisle for the condiments and the noodles (Annie Chun’s pad Thai noodles are terrific). The spice or bulk spice section will have the star anise, cinnamon, and clove.
To allow pho aromatics and spices to shine, use a combination of beef and chicken broths, which yields a lighter, more appropriate canvas for painting a pho profile. Swanson is my go-to brand for broth, because it offers good beefy or chicken-y flavor and not much else. If you use other brands and the sodium count is lower than that of Swanson (check the nutrition labels), you’ll need more salt and fish sauce than what’s suggested in the recipe.
Compared to from-scratch broth, this quickie version is a touch cloudy. It’s natural and not a deal breaker, though if you like, you may strain the finished broth through muslin for a little extra clarity.
For delicate sweetness, season the broth with organic sugar or maple syrup; they have a rounder, more complex flavor than regular white sugar.
Don’t be deterred by the longish recipe. Break it down into stages:
- You can make the broth up to three days ahead.
- The beef can be marinated up to a day in advance and brought to room temperature before stir-frying.
- The noodles are best boiled the day you use them, because once refrigerated, cooked rice noodles dry out, harden, and can break easily when they’re revived.
If noodles need warming by the time you’re ready to assemble and serve, portion them into bowls and microwave each bowl on high for 30-second blasts. Or, you can warm all the noodles in the skillet over medium heat with a little oil, then divide them among the noodle soup bowls. Then reheat the skillet to stir-fry the beef.
Tweaks for Tinkerers
There are often goodies stuck to the pan after stir-frying the meat. Throw the bean sprouts into the hot pan and briefly stir-fry them to pick up those savory bits. Once the sprouts have slightly softened, after about 90 seconds, remove the pan from the heat and divide the sprouts among the bowls. The recipe here uses a skillet, but if you’ve got a well-seasoned wok, go for it!
What are you waiting for? With ingredients within easy reach, you can create a marvelous old school pho in a simply delicious modern manner.
Want More Vietnamese Recipes?
- Quick Chicken Pho
- Vietnamese Char Siu Chicken
- Chicken Curry With Sweet Potato and Lemongrass
- Vietnamese Style Sticky Chicken Skewers
- Vietnamese Style Noodle Bowls with Chicken
Easy Wok-Kissed Beef Pho
- For the broth:
- Chubby 1-inch (1 ounce) section ginger
- 3 medium-large green onions
- 1 1/2 to 2 star anise (12 to 16 robust points total; use the max if you like spice)
- Slender 3-inch cinnamon stick, broken in half
- 3 whole cloves
- 4 cups low-sodium beef broth, preferably Swanson
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth, preferably Swanson
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon organic sugar, or 2 teaspoons maple syrup (optional)
- For the pho:
- 10 ounces dried medium flat rice noodles (aka pad Thai noodles)
- 2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil, plus more as needed
- 12 ounces well-trimmed beef steak (such as top sirloin, tri-tip, or flank steak), cut across the grain into bite-size strips a scant 1⁄4 inch thick (chopstickable pieces, about 1” x 3” x scant 1/4” thick)
- 1/4 teaspoon recently ground black pepper, plus more as needed
- 3/4 teaspoon white or brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 small (2 ounce) yellow or red onion, cut along the grain into narrow wedges
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
- Optional add-ins (choose none, some, or all):
- 4 handfuls bean sprouts
- 1 or 2 Thai or serrano chiles, or 1 sliced jalapeño or Fresno, thinly sliced with seeds intact
- 4 to 6 sprigs mint
- 4 to 6 sprigs Thai basil
- 4 to 6 lime wedges
- Hoisin sauce
- Sriracha sauce
Make the quick broth:
Peel then slice the ginger into 6 to 8 coins. Smack the coins with the flat side of a knife to slightly crush, then set aside.
Thinly slice the green parts of the green onion to yield 1/4 cup; set aside for garnish. Cut the leftover sections into pinkie-finger lengths, smack with the flat side of the knife, then add to the ginger.
In a 4-quart pot, toast the star anise, cinnamon, and cloves over medium heat until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the ginger and green onion sections. Stir for 30 seconds, until aromatic. Slide the pot off the heat, wait about 15 seconds to cool a bit, then pour in the beef and chicken broths.
Return the pot to the burner, then add the water and salt. Bring to a boil over high, then lower the heat to gently simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
Strain the broth:
When the broth is done, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer positioned over a 3-quart pot; discard the solids. You should have about 8 cups; if your yield is way off, add water to dilute or boil down to concentrate.
Season the broth with fish sauce and sugar to create a strong savory-sweet note. Keep the broth warm over medium heat. If it comes to a boil, lower the heat and cover.
Cook the noodles:
While the broth simmers, boil the noodles in a large pot of water for 5 to 7 minutes, until tender and chewy (or use package directions, if available). Drain, rinse under cold water to remove any lingering starch, then let drain well before dividing among 4 noodle soup bowls.
Prep the beef and add-ins:
In a bowl, combine the beef with the pepper, sugar, cornstarch, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Set the beef by the stove with the garlic, onion, green onion tops, and cilantro. Have any optional add-ins at the table.
Cook the beef:
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl in the 2 tablespoons oil. Add the garlic and onion. Once aromatic, about 30 seconds, push the aromatics to one side of the pan.
Increase the heat to high and add the beef, spreading it out into a single layer. Let it cook, undisturbed, for about 1 minute. When the beef begins browning, use a spatula to flip and stir for 1 to 2 minutes, until it is still slightly rare.
Serve the pho:
Divide the beef among the bowls. Garnish with green onion and cilantro. Sprinkle on some pepper. Re-taste the broth, make any adjustments, then bring to a boil and ladle into the bowls. Serve immediately.
Invite guests to enjoy this like other pho noodle soup—using a two-handed approach to wield chopsticks and a soup spoon. They should include as many add-ins as they wish!