Pho sets the table to celebrate immigrant communities: A call for recipes

Photo credit: Dai Huynh

Pull up a chair, to join Loan and Dai Huynh at their kitchen table, where Phở (Pho) defines Vietnam like no other dish. Take in their recipe, spiced by star anise and cinnamon, providing depth and dimension through fresh chicken and broth. Then take out your pen, to share with us your dish, the one that says “home” for you, bridging from your old country to build new community.

The Advocates for Human Rights assists people seeking asylum in the United States, from countries around the world. By doing this, as Loan reminds us, “We, you and I, have the opportunity to save a life.”

We would like to raise funds for this continued work by creating a cookbook to tell the stories of courageous refugees and asylum seekers, in part through recipes from their homelands. Our small volunteer team working to publish this book seeks connection to people willing to share their stories or recipes. We understand that not all people wish to be named, and welcome contributions of many kinds. We also welcome contributions from staff and volunteers, who have encountered the world through travel or relationship in their work with The Advocates.

Loan and Dai Huynh share their family recipe for Vietnamese Beef Pho

To inspire your thoughts, here are a few from Loan and Dai, sisters who fled Vietnam with their family in 1975, racing along the beach the night after Saigon fell, in a jeep chased by shells exploding. When they arrived to the refugee camp in Fort Chafee, Arkansas, they were just five and six years old. The United States offered both challenge and promise. Loan recalls her excitement holding a pretty scroll, the Declaration of Independence handed out during an elementary school Bicentennial celebration in Reston, Virginia. Yet as she and Dai walked home that day, schoolmates attacked them – their first experience of anti-immigrant sentiment and racism. Growing up between cultures, the girls felt that they did not belong to any culture. Yet the girls triumphed, again and again.

Loan earned her law degree, and moved to Minnesota for a legal fellow position with The Advocates in 1996.  She now is the Chair of the Immigration Department at Fredrikson & Byron and serves on the Board of Directors for The Advocates for Human Rights. Her experience growing up as a girl refugee in the US was a driving force in her decision to seek a career in human rights.    Dai is Vice President of Global Branding and Marketing for Paul Brown Hawaii. Prior to this, she was a features writer for the Houston Chronicle for more than 20 years and is a James Beard award recipient for her writing.  

Loan has found, through decades of talking with people, that food offers “a wonderful segue into their lives and experiences.” Talking about food opens people up. Dai has found that “one of the most fascinating aspects is how people translate the food of their culture when they come to the United States.” People transform the food into something that bridges their homeland to their new country.

Pho is “not a difficult dish to make if you know the steps,” says Dai. Beef bones that cook for hours, “to get all the wonderful goodness out of it.” The spices you add, “to get all the complex flavors.” Pho is a dish that “layers.”  

“Pho is my mom,” both women say. Like matzo ball soup for the Jewish community or tamales for the Mexican community, Pho is “the one dish that mom makes for you that brings you straight home.” Pho spans across Vietnam, the “heart and soul” for many families. Yet everyone has their own version. “We think our version’s the best, of course,” say Loan and Dai. The Huynhs cook Pho for Christmas Eve, still. They cook Pho for many friends and family. Through sharing Pho, Loan and Dai build community, here.

You’ll find Loan and Dai Huyhn’s recipe for Vietnamese Beef Pho below. We hope you have a “pho-nomenom” time making this traditional Vietnamese dish!

Food is a pillar that offers comfort, provides security, and links us to our homeland and past traditions. Just as food may help us to rebuild our homes in a new land, food may allow us to create new communities when it is shared. Whatever your country of origin, do you have a family or a national recipe that defines home for you? It could be momos from Nepal, spring rolls from Viet Nam, hummus from the Middle East or any unique favorite from around the world. Can you help?  Would you be willing to share your story and recipe with us?

At a time when immigration has come under attack, it is more important than ever to remember that people who emigrate to the United States enhance our communities with wonderful traditions, old and new, and  that we are all the better for it. If you’d be willing to join this effort, please contact Amy Bergquist at abergquist@advrights.org and Linda Svitak at linda.svitak@gmail.com.

By Linda Svitak and Christin Eaton, volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law.

Curious about volunteering? Please reach out. The Advocates for Human Rights has an opportunity for you.

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VIETNAMESE BEEF PHO

For the broth:

3 pounds beef bones (a mix of oxtails cut into 2-inch pieces and shank bones preferred)

1 whole chicken

1-2 pounds of brisket flat (or boneless short ribs)

6 (16-ounce) cans of chicken broth

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

1 whole nutmeg (optional)

1 large piece of ginger, about 3 ½ -4 ½ inch

1 large yellow onion, peeled

Kosher salt to taste

3-4 pieces of rock sugar – see note

For the pho:

1 package of bo vien beef meatballs (optional) – see note

3 (16-ounce) packages of fresh rice stick noodles

1 pound of eye of round beef, sliced thin

1 small white onion, sliced thin

1 cup chopped scallions

1 cup chopped cilantro

Ground black pepper

2 cups bean sprouts

2 handfuls of each: Thai basil sprigs and Culantro (Ngo Gai) 

6 Thai bird chiles or 1 Serrano chili, very thinly sliced

2 limes, cut into wedges

Fish sauce – See note
Sriracha Sauce (optional)

Hoisin Sauce (optional)

In a large stockpot, bring 12 quarts of water to a boil. Place beef oxtails and shank bones in boiling water; add more water if necessary to cover the meat. Allow scum to rise to the top, then drain the meat in a large strainer. Rinse meat with cold water; set aside.  

Cut the chicken breasts off the bones. Set aside the two breasts to poach later in the pho stock.

Heat oven to about 500 degrees.

Meanwhile, return the beef oxtails and shank bones to the large stockpot, along with the chicken without the breasts and brisket flat.  Add enough cold water to fill about half of the pot. Add four cans of chicken broth. Place the pot over high heat and bring to a boil.

While the stock is heating up, place cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, ginger, and onion on a cookie sheet. Broil in the oven just until fragrant and lightly golden brown. The anise will brown quickly; remove it after about 20-30 seconds in the oven. The cinnamon and nutmeg will brown after about two minutes. Do not burn the spices, or you’ll have to start over. Remove the ginger and onions when caramelized. 
Transfer the cinnamon, anise, and nutmeg to the stockpot. Allow ginger to cool, then slice it lengthwise. Add ginger and onion to the stockpot along with three rock sugar and about 2 heaping tablespoons of kosher salt.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.

Remove scum as it rises to the surface while the broth is simmering. Avoid stirring the broth as much as possible while the broth simmers for about eight hours. Midway, about three-to-four hours, remove the brisket flat or when cooked until tender. Allow brisket to cool completely in the refrigerator before thinly slicing the brisket.

Add the chicken breasts to the stockpot. When chicken breasts are cooked through, remove from the broth, and allow to cool. When cool, slice the chicken into ¼-inch slices. Arrange on a plate and set aside in the fridge until ready to use.
After about six hours of simmering the broth, you can top off the broth with remaining canned chicken broth. Adjust seasonings to taste; add more kosher salt and rock sugar. The pho broth should be savory, slightly salty to balance the bland rice noodles.

About 30 minutes before the pho broth is ready, add the bo vien meatballs if using. 

To assemble the pho, rinse the fresh noodles in cold water; set them aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and, working in batches, dip the noodles into the boiling water for 10 to 20 seconds, stirring them until al dente and to keep from tangling. Drain.

To serve, place about 2 cups of cooked noodles in each of eight large soup bowls. Place a few slices of brisket, sliced raw eye of round, and poached chicken breast on the noodles. Garnish with sliced onions, scallions, cilantro, and ground black pepper to taste, then spoon 2 to 3 cups broth and bo vien meatballs into each bowl. Season each of bowl of pho with about ½ to 1 tablespoon fish sauce, or to taste before serving.

Guests can top the soup at the table with bean sprouts, fresh herbs, chilies, fresh lime juice, and add additional fish sauce to taste. Sriracha sauce and hoisin sauce are a matter of taste and are purely optional. Makes 8 large servings.

Note: You can find rock sugar at Asian stores. Vietnamese groceries sell bo vien meatballs made with beef and tendon (hence the slight chew). All you need to do is warmed these already cooked meatballs in the pho broth before serving.

Many recipes add fish sauce to the broth while simmering. However, our mother found that it can add a slight sourness to the finished broth, so in our family, we add the fish sauce to the bowl of pho just before serving. Mom recommends Three Crabs Fish Sauce, but many brands are available.

Even though this is called Vietnamese Beef Pho, you’ll notice the addition of whole chicken and chicken broth (either homemade or canned will work). Without the fresh chicken and canned broth, the pho lacks depth and dimension. We hope you have a “pho-nomenom” time making this traditional Vietnamese dish.

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