Vegetarian Pho–Which is to say, Faux Pho

The weather had already turned cold, though snowless, and at the Asian Fusion restaurant in town I looked wistfully at pictures of steamy bowls of pho, a Vietnamese dish of rice noodles and toppings in an aromatic broth. As I suspected, however, even the vegetable pho came in a meat base.

Meat in pho is not surprising: authentic pho is composed of a rich broth from slow cooking beef and marrow and then more meat is piled atop the noodles. According to an article on the history of Pho on the blog Loving Pho, all other versions are poor imitations. So I wouldn’t have been surprised if all the pho choices on the menu had beef-based broth, but our server said this is not the case. Various toppings were served in different broths–pork, beef…maybe others–I had stopped listening when she said that the veggies came in a meat stock as well. A person could order water instead of meat broth she told me apologetically.

I ordered a stir fried noodle dish instead, but felt a little miffed. If they weren’t going to adhere to tradition anyway, why they didn’t make up some veggie broth–out of mushrooms, say–for the vegetable pho? Water, indeed!

I watched Wayne stir a little chili garlic sauce into his pho and dress it with fresh crisp bean sprouts, basil leaves, and a squeeze of lime. I stole a bean sprout from his dish of pho accompaniments and decided I was going to have a go at inauthentic pho at home.

My broth, aromatic with traditional star anise, cinnamon, clove, and ginger came out tasty despite its vegetarian reincarnation. Dried mushrooms give the broth some earthy notes as does giving the onions a little char before adding to the broth. This dish is healthy, light, warming, and flavorful. Not bad for faking it!

Vegetarian Pho

Broth and additions

  • 2-1/2 quarts water
  • 6 or so dried black mushrooms
  • 1 oz. dried shitake mushrooms
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 onion sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 inch piece of peeled fresh ginger
  • salt to taste
  • 1/3 block tofu, cut into small cubes
  • 2 small baby bok choy bunches, sliced into half-moons
  • 1 package rice noodles, soaked according to package directions

Accompaniments at the table

  • fresh mung bean sprouts
  • lime wedges
  • chili garlic sauce and/or Sriracha sauce
  • hoisin sauce
  • fresh basil and cilantro
  1. Simmer the mushrooms in the water over medium heat in a large pot. Add soy sauce and allow to simmer for twenty minutes or longer until the mushrooms are thoroughly soft and expanded. Soak the rice noodles at the same time
  2. Cook  onion and garlic over medium high heat in a small amount of peanut or other cooking oil. Allow onions to get soft and brown, even a slight char. Add a half cup of water to the pan at the end of the cooking to get the all the flavor out of the pan before transferring it all to the broth.
  3. Add anise, cinnamon stick, cloves, and ginger. If you have cheesecloth, it’s best to tie these guys up before adding to the broth. Otherwise you have to fish them out individually. Allow the whole mixture to bubble together for ten more minutes or so. Add salt to taste. I added probably a couple teaspoons.
  4. Add tofu and bok choy and simmer for a few minutes until the bok choy is just softened.
  5. Serve the dish by arranging plenty of noodles at the bottom of each diner’s bowl and then pouring broth and additions on top. Diners can then add as much sprouts, herbs, and flavorings as they like at the table.



One Comment:

  1. As I sit here eating my Spicy Pumpkin Soup (it has a vegetarian option – let me know if you are interested) with my asian spoon and reading your article on Faux Pho, i realized that I am using the exact same spoon as in your picture. It is from that great Asian supermarket near your Dad’s house in NJ! I bought 2 during our trip and use them all the time. I can’t stand eating soup with traditional spoons – they can’t “scoop” enough at a time to satisfy me.

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