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.

Soups on!

If you’re looking for a quick and tasty soup, it’s hard to do much better than Imagine Foods’ Creamy Potato and Leek Soup, a wonderful organic (and vegan) soup that heats up quickly (a minute in the microwave will do it). Sprinkle some rice cheese and some fresh chives on top and you have yourself a great dinner. It’s also not terribly expensive and I’ve even seen it at the local Giant.

Alternatively, if you’re into making soups but don’t have an hour-and-a-half to spend, might I recommend Curried Carrot Soup from Lorna Sass’ Short-Cut Vegetarian. It’s wonderful creaminess comes from coconut milk which also serves to mute the potentially overpowering flavors of curry and a pound of carrots. I’m a big fan of this one for its rich, but not overwhelming, flavor, the nutrional punch it packs, and it’s quick and easy nature (30 minutes will cover preparation and cooking). However, I will say that either the curry or the coconut milk didn’t agree with me well afterwards.

Now if Lorna Sass would just get her own web site…

Eating at non-vegetarian restaurants

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Last night, Huyen and I went to Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia, a strip mall full of Vietnamese restaurants, grocery stores, jewelery stores, music and video stores, and more. It used to be known as “Little Saigon” and, indeed, Vietnamese come from long distances to visit the center. Think Chinatown for the Vietnamese.

Huyen is Vietnamese and we used to live close to the Eden Center, and it’s one of the things we’ve missed most about moving away from Falls Church. However, since we were in DC yesterday to volunteer for the end of the Cherry Blossom Festival, we decided to go to Eden for dinner.

We’d been to the Four Sisters Restaurant a number of times and the pho places don’t offer up vegetarian versions of their tasty beef soup, unfortunately, so we decided to try out one of the smaller restaurants with less visibility than some of the bigger eateries at Eden. We settled on Hung Long (you in the back, stop your snickering!). When we were seated, I was bit dismayed that their menu was entirely meat and seafood dishes with nary a single vegetarian option on the menu. However, I remembered hearing that almost any ethnic restaurant—Asian ones, in particular—will make vegetarian dishes on request. Sure enough, they were willing to.

I asked for a pretty straightforward dish that I usually order at other Vietnamese restaurants: rice with cooked vegetables and tofu. I also asked that they not use fish sauce (“Khong nuoc mam” in case you get a waiter that doesn’t speak good English), since fish sauce is often used in Southeast Asian dishes, including vegetarian ones. Don’t worry, though—a substitute can be made very easily and you don’t lose any of the flavor.

A side note… a couple of weeks ago I went to a Thai restaurant and ordered Vegetarian Pad Thai without the fish sauce. They brought me Pad Thai with no fish sauce, sure enough, but it had three giant shrimp sitting on top. They apologized profusely and fixed the mistake.

Anyway, back to last night’s dinner. The waiter nodded politely and said the vegetarian dish would be no problem.

A few minutes later, he brought out my dinner and it looked fabulous: rice on the side with broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, and small, perfectly fried chunks of tofu covered in a light-tasting soy sauce. It tasted just as good as it looked and I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t offer this on their menu alongside their meat and seafood dishes. They charged me $6, the same price as a corresponding meat dish.

When I paid, my waiter asked, “So you eat only vegetables?” I nodded and he said, “That must be hard.” I responded that it’s not as hard as it might seem and he smiled. “You come back again. We’ll try something different next time.”

Sounds good to me.