Vegetarian Pho

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My last meal with meat was in September of 2000. It was at a Vietanamese pho restaurant with a co-worker. Pho was my favorite meal at the time, especially after visiting Vietnam and having it once or twice every day. Unfortunately, Pho Bo, by its very definition is a beef noodle soup, so my decision to become vegetarian meant that I had to give up my favorite meal and the absolutely incredible aromas that went along with it.

Or so I thought.

It’s been a full 19 months since I had my last bowl of pho, and since none of the pho restaurants offered a vegetarian version (though I’ve told they exist), I decided it was time to try and make my own. Fortunately for me, the Vegetarian Resource Group had an article about travelling in Vietnam as a vegetarian, including recipes for the broth and the soup ingredients. This past Friday night, I decided to give it a shot, praying that the aromas I fondly remembered would fill the house and the relaxed feeling I got from eating pho would return to me.

I had this feeling that recreating the soup as a vegetarian dish would be successful. I figured that the smells and tastes that go along with pho came not from the meat, but from the seasonings and fresh vegetables. With ingredients like cinnamon and the gloriously-scented star anise, it was bound to smell good while cooking.

Friday night after work, I stopped by the nearby Asian market to pick up some of the ingredients that aren’t at the local Giant: bean sprouts (a huge bagful), some seitan in a can, Napa cabbage, cilantro (available at the supermarket, but it’s more expensive), and the rice noodles (I got specifically thin “pho noodles”—they’re also available in a thicker version). I had picked up cinammon sticks a week or two earlier and got a few pods of star anise from a local health food store. The star anise was so light that it didn’t even register on the scale—they charged me 2 cents. Everything else, I had at home.

The broth is pretty basic, starting with vegetable stock, soy sauce, garlic, and onion and then adding some charred ginger, cinnamon sticks, two pods of star anise (that’s two stars), and two bay leaves. After simmering and removing the solids, I added a couple dashes of Vietnamese cinnamon for a little extra flavor. Regular ground cinnamon would work, too, but Vietnamese cinnamon (available at Whole Foods and similar places) is stronger.

The soup ingredients are also relatively basic: noodles, seitan, bean sprouts, and some greens. The recipe linked above is well written and worth following.

The entire preparation and cooking time amounted to about 35-40 minutes, not bad for a soup. With anticipation, my wife and I took our bowls and sat at the table to try this new recipe for an old favorite. After the first incredible sip, I must have blacked out with pleasure… this stuff was good! And, it was extremely similar to how I remembered traditional pho. The spices were pungent but not overpowering, the textures were proper (especially with the optional added peanuts), and it made me feel warm and comfortable. My wife, who is Vietnamese and still eats meat, also thoroughly enjoyed it. Success!

It’s hard to describe how happy I was to find a suitable vegan adaptation of a favorite meat-based dish. It’s definitely going to become part of my regular arsenal. I heartily recommend it to those of you who have been lucky enough to experience pho and those of you who haven’t, as well.


Steamy veggie pho
The broth is ready to be ladled over the noodles and greens.

Ladeling the broth
Ryan (donning the only male Vietnamese garb in the house — the wedding ao dai) prepares the bowls.

The final product
The final product.


Related Links

Vegetarian Vietnam
Sally Bernstein’s wonderful Vegetarian Journal article about travelling in Vietnam as a vegetarian. Includes the recipes I used.

A Bowl of Pho
A thorough weblog entry describing the intracies of the pho experience.

Soup restores heart, soul in many cultures
A Washington (D.C.) Times article about various comfort soups, including pho.

29 Responses to “Vegetarian Pho”

  1. Meadow Gibbons

    I made the vegetarian pho recipe you offered (with a few of my own variations) and it is AWESOME! Thanks so much for posting this recipe for a veggie alternative to one of my favorites.

  2. Ryan Hawkes

    I strongly appreciate your blog, and talking about veggie pho in particular. I live in Seattle and eat at a local Pho restaurant that offers a veggie version, including tofu strips and mushrooms. I’ve been pretty much addicted to it, even though I’m not vegetarian. I appreciate excluding meat from my diet and I’ve been wanting to make it from home. If you ever come to Seattle and want a fabulous Pho, drop me an email, and I can direct you to the local establishment, Than Brothers. Thanks, Ryan

  3. Kate

    Thank you so much for the recipe! I’m making it tomorrow, it looks fantastic. Pho is my favourite food ever.

    And Ryan Hawkes, I’m going to Seattle next week and I am definitely checking out Than Brothers, thanks for the tip!

  4. ross welti

    Yes! I live in Seattle, a few blocks from the Broadway Avenue
    Than Bros. restaurant with the famous veggie pho.
    You can’t get it at all of the Than branches. University
    District, where I work, does not have it for example. I
    asked why and they said it takes more space to prepare
    as the pots they use are larger… (?) Whatever.
    Anyway it is indeed great.
    Ross

  5. Ryan

    I had some really good veggie pho at Ballet in the Unversity District… how does Than Bros. pho compare?

  6. Miranda

    I also live in Seattle. Unfortunately the Thanh Bros on Broadway pumps their vegetarian pho full of MSG. My friend and I asked the waiter. I always wondered why I felt like I needed a smoke and a nap after I ate there. Sorry. The Ballet pho is good. Another place to try is downtown on 3rd & Marion it’s called Cafe Pho.

  7. Meredith

    Bad news: the one place that I know of in the DC area that had truly vegetarian pho is now closed. Last night I tried to go to Scent of Saigon in Oakton (between Vienna and Fairfax) and discovered it had recently turned into a Thai restaurant called Saffron. They had a very good vegetarian selection, so we ate there anyway (the panang tofu wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either)…but Scent of Saigon is definitely gone.

  8. Donald

    As a Vietnamese person who recently went vegetarian I am forever thankful that I don’t have to give up my favourite food just yet! I mean it’s kinda oxymoronic to have vegetarian beef noodle soup (well in this case I guess it’s very well vegan woohoo) but then I guess it’s for the same reasons I eat all my other soy stuff. I’m definitely trying out your recipe next week!

  9. amanda

    Yes, thank you Miranda for pointing out that Than Bros is chock full of MSG. So sad, especially since it’s the most popular place in Seattle for Pho. I actually went there today for lunch- cold, rainy day in Seattle, and asked the waiter about the MSG, and he said “Yes, we use MSG. Everybody uses MSG, just a little bit.” Sad, sad, sad. So, tonight I’m going to make this homemade Pho myself, sans MSG. Thank you!!!

  10. Howard Needleman

    I have always coveted pho from afar, as a vegetarian, until I had the vegetarian version at Than brothers in Seattle. It is the first thing I do every time I am in Seattle. Luckily, I just found a place outside of Baltimore that makes a vegetarian pho–An Loi in Columbia. you have to ask them to make the vegetable pho with a vegetarian broth, but they will do it for you, and it’s quite good. Not Than brothers, but a good enough subsitute for those of us who can’t make it to Seattle regularly.

  11. Kosher Vegetarian Mum

    Totally wish I had found your blog/recipe before I spent many unsuccessful attempts trying to make vegetarian pho. I struck gold this past weekend with a modified recipe that sounds somewhat similar to yours. I posted it on my blog in case it helps anyone else. If you’re in D.C., both Nam Viet on Connecticut Avenue and Saigonese in Wheaton both have vegetarian phos that rock.

  12. Jessica Robinson

    Thank you to the Seattle commenters about Than Brothers’ pho. As a long-time vegetarian, I was thrilled to find out they offered 100% vegetarian pho and chowed down at the Redmond location… only to be mowed down later that evening with a killer migraine. I’m not against MSG, but I didn’t even know it was a trigger of mine. Wish I had seen these comments before!

    I think I’ll be sticking to the at-home version from now on.

  13. Huyen

    That was an interesting blog. Thanks. I’ve been looking for Vegetarian Pho. Haven’t had any luck. Well… at least none of them sound any good. I should make my own version too. Like YOU ^_^ Thanks.

  14. Dan Brown

    Jessica,
    Ive been eating @ than brothers in redmond and ballard in seattle till one day i found Tripe in my veggie broth, dont trust menus
    And if your not into investing the time to make homemade Pho, any asian food shop sells many different Pho Broth mixes and boullion cubes that are 100% vegetarian suitable

  15. suzanne

    I recently made some veggie pho, which had 2 tablespoons of fish sauce (not soy) and 4 kaffir lime leaves (not bay). I recommend the lime leaves especially. It gave it that authentic smell and flavor. Bummer about the MSG at Than Brothers. I love that place! I add hoisin sauce to my soup which helps it to be saltier (that might have MSG too though, I didn’t look)

  16. connie

    I hate to ask – but does this qualify as faux pho?

  17. Anmry

    OoO sounds delish! I never made pho cuz my sister always does it – hmmm – now I can make the vegetarian version & coyly get them to eat it…thanks a million!! :)

  18. Lindsay

    Thank you thank you thank you! I was so bummed that my favorite Vietnamese resturant does not offer a veg version of Pho. Now I can have it at home – YAY!

  19. Honora

    If anyone is ever in Costa Mesa CA, there is an amazing restaurant called AU LAC Vegetarian on brookhurst. They speak humanese and make an amzing Vegetarian Pho, sans MSG. Make sure to try the steamed jicama roles as well. I go at keast once a week; they have ,my order memorized. good luck, and thanks for all the tips!

  20. seadevi

    I love the Veggie Pho with Extra Tofu at Thanh Brothers. It is the perfect meal on a chilly day.

  21. Rano

    Although I am not pure vegetarian, I eat only halal meat, and it is hard to find non-Pakistani halal restaurant if I wanted to eat out. If you ever come to Chicago, there is Tank Noodle on the corner of Argyle and Broadway. They have vegetarian spring rolls (Yummy!) and vegetable pho (they ask you if you want vegetarian broth or chicken). It is awesome, and very affordable. As for the recipe, I tried it, and it was really good. Thank you!

  22. Tofu Hunter

    This looks fantastic, I’ve flirted with the idea of making my own vegetarian pho but the efforts have been casual and unsatisfying. Your recipe looks great.

  23. Meredith

    Just in case people come across this entry and are looking for vegetarian pho in DC, I can now recommend Pho Bac in Chantilly.

  24. Nadja Dee

    HOME MADE VEGETARIAN FISH SAUCE: So, I’ve noticed that a lot of asian dishes call for fish sauce, and if you’re a true vegetarian like me you always feel like that puts the recipe just out of reach. I’ve come up with my own vegetarian fish sauce and I think it’s 99% close the real thing.

    I based the main part of it off the Wikipedia Vegetarian Fish Sauce recipe, but I felt the recipe there lacked a few things which put it into the realm of “tastes like the real thing” but it’s 100% VEGETARIAN.

    HOW TO MAKE VEGGIE FISH SAUCE
    INGREDIENTS
    2 - cups shredded dried seaweed
    4 - cups water
    3 - cloves garlic (smashed but not minced)
    1 & 1/2 - Tbsp whole black peppercorns
    1/2 - cup soy sauce
    2 - tsp lime juice (concentrate OK)
    2 - tsp lemon juice (concentrate OK)
    2 - Tbs vinegar
    3 - tsp sugar
    1 - tsp ground ginger
    1 - tsp ground garlic
    1/4 - tsp chili powder

    You can find the dried seaweed at just about any asian market. Personally I prefer the type that shredded kinda small versus the large sheets of seaweed. I think that when it’s shredded it makes for a richer sauce.

    HOW TO PREPARE VEGETARIAN FISH SAUCE
    1. In a large bowl, add 2 cups dried seaweed + 4 cups water
    2. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes
    3. Add garlic cloves + peppercorns + soy sauce + lime juice + lime juice
    + vinegar + sugar + ginger + garlic powder + ginger + chili powder
    4. Bring to a boil, turn heat down to medium and cook for 30 minutes
    5. You can adjust the salt level by adding water
    6. Allow to cool
    7. Strain into a container

    Straining it is the key. Once it’s strained you can funnel it into a large water bottle, and label it “Veggie Fish Sauce” or as it’s called in Vietnam “Nuoc Mam Chay” If you’ve ever tasted the real fish sauce (in your pre-veggie days) you can sample a tiny bit and see just how close to the real thing it really tastes. But caution…this stuff is stinky and strong! Just like the real fish sauce.

    Hope you like it.
    Ms Nadja Dee Witherbee
    Seattle WA
    [email protected]

  25. Daring Zenster

    i googled for vegetarian pho and found your recipe. yummy. thanks. i am a recently turned vegetarian and had missed pho for a 1 year now. so i will give it a shot!

  26. LMN

    Thanks! I’m a Vietnamese vegetarian, but had never made this before I stumbled onto this online recipe and had only enjoyed it in veggie restaurants. I really appreciate the recipe. The result is fantastic and it is really easy to make!

  27. Stephanie Andria

    Great ideas! I ‘m going to try the veg fish sauce too (@Ms. Nadja)…hopefully it’s less stinky than actual fish sauce.
    A tip for Pho ppl…You know how they sell the pre-bagged up spices for Pho? Well when I had a hard time finding them except for certain Vietnames places, I bought all the needed spice (coriander, fennel, ect…) and tossed them in measured amounts in a medium sized fliter then tied it up with string. (make sure string has no chemicals.) Now I keep all the spices in a big tin with coffee filters and string and labelled it Pho Kit. hehe

  28. Cindy

    I’m so thankful I found your blog. Recently I’ve been wanting to go vegetarian but it’s difficult when I think about not being able to eat my favourite foods anymore. Thanks for posting this!

  29. Meagan

    If anyone lives in NYC,there’s a fairly new vegetarian (I think it’s actually vegan by default) Vietnamese restaurant on 6th St (between 1st and 2nd Ave) that makes THE best veg Pho I have ever had! Just wanted to pass this on. As I no longer live in NYC (true love makes you do the craziest things) I am planning to make my first batch of Pho tonight. Thanks for all of the tips! Looking forward to trying this out!

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