I’ve long contended that China influenced Vietnamese pho big time, but it wasn’t till this week that I got a clear sense of what Chinese beef pho is actually like. Yes, it exists, and I found a recipe in my friend Georgia Freedman’s new book, Cooking South of the Clouds, which focuses on the cooking of Yunnan province located in southwestern China. In Mandarin, Yunnan means south of the clouds. The Chinese know Vietnam as Yuenan, which means far (or further) south. Vietnam was part of China for a total of 1,000 years so it has figured into being part of the Chinese kingdom.
Long ago, when I was studying Chinese language and culture, I sensed there were many ties between Yunnan and Yuenan. Aside from the similar names in Mandarin, the Red River (Song Hong in Vietnamese) flows from Yunnan into northern Vietnam and empties into the Gulf of Tonkin. Ideas and trade have been flowing on the river and across the porous border to connect the people of the two areas.
No wonder the history of pho has a lot to do with Chinese street food vendors who were peddling noodle soup in and around Hanoi. They were among the first pho cooks on Vietnamese soil!
I’ve only been to Yunnan once, in 1992 for about a week, so it wasn’t much of a learning experience or discovery of cultural and culinary linkages. For that reason, I’ve been supportive and interested in Georgia’s efforts to illuminate Yunnan cooking. It took many years for her and her husband, Josh, who took the photographs, to finish the book and get it published. If you’re into regional Chinese cooking, Cooking South of the Clouds is worth getting for your library and to cook from.
Chinese beef pho vs. Viet beef pho
When I studied Georgia’s recipe for beef noodle soup, which she says is the same as Vietnamese pho prepared downstream, I noticed these similarities between Yunnan and Hanoi-style pho: the use of black cardamom, star anise and fennel (see my Pho Spice Blend for more info); and the preference for mint, minced ginger, and fresh garlic. Hardcore pho lovers in northern Vietnam use mint (not Thai basil) to garnish pho with herbal freshness. A bit of ginger adds fragrance, too. And the garlic is nowadays represented in a vinegary condiment that you can find at many pho shops in Hanoi; a simple recipe for giam toi is in The Pho Cookbook and here on this site.
The Chinese beef pho broth has no shallot, ginger or fish sauce. As a result, it’s very subtle and light in flavor, especially with the use of beef shank, which imparts collagen but it isn’t a beefy-tasting cut. The last-minute additions of umami-laden mustard greens, chile oil, Sichuan peppercorn, garlic chives, and vinegar are totally Chinese.
Wondering what the recipe’s end result would be like, I made a batch of Chinese beef pho but instead of simmering the broth in a pot for hours on the stove, I used my Fagor Lux multicooker (it’s the same as an Instant Pot but the Fagor has a fabulous nonstick ceramic coated inner pot that heats up hot and cleans up like a dream). I adore using a pressure cooker or electric multicooker for pho experiments.
Do you have to have all the toppings?
The rest of the work was pulling things from the fridge — I had the Fermented Chinese Mustard Greens from a couple weeks back and (bonus!) it already had pickled chiles and garlic so I chopped those up as a topping. In my pantry was homemade chile oil. There was mint in the garden, and some garlic chives too. I also had the garlic vinegar in the fridge and found that that had more impact on the soup than the garlic chive. And Sichuan peppercorn is part of my spice collection.
You don’t have to have all the things that Georgia lists (she says they’re optional), but I’d suggest 4 or 5 items to add oomph to your Chinese beef pho bowl. The broth is very delicately flavored so it needs something. At the least, have some soy sauce and vinegar.
How was the flavor?
It wasn’t Vietnamese pho. It tasted like Chinese food but of Yunnan. The multitude of additions reminded me of Yunnan’s signature dish, Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles, a complicated noodle soup with a zillion different toppings; the broth features pork, chicken, star anise and black cardamom, and is seasoned with soy sauce.
Most Chinese beef dishes are not super beefy, which is perhaps why the broth for the Chinese pho is so light. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, adore the hearty, fatty, rich flavors of beef brisket and the like. We also adore our fish sauce and charring the shallot/onion and ginger.
I tried adding fish sauce to the broth but it didn’t make things more Viet-ish. The Chinese pho was better off with soy sauce and the other add-ins because as Georgia writes in the Cooking South of the Clouds, the topping options “give it a local twist.”
So yes, you can be neighbors and perhaps even kin, but you don’t have to cook pho the same.
Yunnan Beef Pho Noodle Soup
Yield 4 serving
In Georgia Freedman's book, Cooking South of the Clouds, she titles this recipe as "Beef Noodle Soup" -- its translation from Chinese characters. In the recipe introduction, she refers to it as being "exactly the same soup that is called pho just a few miles down south, in Vietnam." For that reason, I've decided to add "Yunnan pho" to the title to give it more of a spotlight. If you don't have Sichuan peppercorn, use black pepper like the Viets do! For information on the spices, see the Pho Spice Blend.
- 2 pounds cross-cut beef shank, including marrow bones
- 1 1/2 pounds beef leg bones, such as knuckle bones
- 2 Chinese black cardamom pods, cracked open with a meat mallet
- 2 star anise (16 robust points total)
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
- 4 large handfuls fresh rice noodles or 12 ounces dried flat rice noodles, such as pad thai or banh pho
- 6 to 12 ounces raw beef steak, such as sirloin or culotte, sliced very thinly (use maximum if not using cooked shank in bowls)
- 1 bunch of fresh mint
- 1 handful garlic (Chinese) chives, blanched, rinsed in cold water, and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 slender green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
- Minced garlic mixed with water to cover by 1/2 inch, or Pho Garlic Vinegar
- 2 tablespoons minced peeled ginger
- 1 cup chopped Fermented Chinese Mustard Greens (include some of the chile and garlic, for extra punch)
- Soy sauce
- Zhenjiang vinegar or 2:1 blend of balsamic and apple cider vinegar
- Dried chile flakes
- Homemade Chile Oil
- Ground toasted Sichuan Peppercorn
- Pickled chiles
- To cook the broth in a 6-quart pressure cooker, put the beef shanks, bones, cardamom, star anise, and fennel in the pot, then add 2 1/4 cups water (use 2 cups water for a multicooker such as a Fagor Lux or Instant Pot). Lock on the lid and bring to high pressure. As needed, adjust the heat to maintain pressure. Let cook on high pressure for 20 minutes, then turn off the heat (or unplug the multicooker). Let naturally depressurize for 15 minutes on a cool burner (allow a multicooker to depressurize for 20 minutes), then release residual pressure. (When cooking in a regular large pot, bring the shank, bones and 12 cups water to a boil. Skim any foam on the surface, before adding the spices. Adjust the heat to simmer for 3 to 4 hours.)
- Regardless of method, when the broth is done, remove the shank from the pot and let sit in a bowl of water for 10 minutes to cool, then strain and let the meat cool. Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer or better yet, line the strainer with muslin for super clear broth! Remove as much fat as you like, then add the salt. You should net about 8 cups of broth; if needed, boil the broth to concentrate the flavor or add water to dilute. (The beef and broth can be refrigerated up to 4 days before using.)
- If using the cooked beef, thinly slice the meat across the grain and set aside. In a large pot of boiling water, cook the noodles until soft and chewy, then drain and divide between four noodle soup bowls. Arrange the sliced cook beef and steak on top.
- Bring the broth a boil and ladle about 2 cups of broth into each bowl. Serve with the topping options at the table.
Adapted from Georgia Freedman’s Cooking South of the Clouds (Kyle Books, 2018)
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