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Vegetarian pho is a delicate matter, a very different thing from its traditional, non-vegetarian counterpart. Without the safety net that meat provides in body and flavor, there’s less wiggle room in the balancing act.
If you're not careful, vegetarian pho can be top-heavy, the broth overloaded with sweetness. But what meat and vegetable broths have in common is that they are the beating heart of a bowl of pho. Everything else is an accessory.
With much trial and error, I've developed a vegetarian broth recipe that's not too sweet: It's intoxicating, fortifying, and delicious enough to eat on its own.
The first step—blistering onions and ginger—is common, and important. It brings a deeper ginger and onion flavor, as well as a bit of astringency.
It can be done over the flames of a gas burner, but I always use the broiler so that I can cook a lot at once. Spread everything out on a foil-lined baking sheet, then cook as close to the flame as possible, flipping with tongs as necessary until charred all over.
And then into a stock pot they go, along with some familiar vegetable stock items—carrots, leeks, garlic—and some less familiar ones—daikon radish, bruised lemongrass, star anise, fennel seed, cinnamon sticks—to be covered generously with water and left to simmer until the flavors sing. Here, the daikon helps to lower that sweetness dial, as do a handful of dried shiitake mushrooms. Then, for the last few minutes, I add a handful of cilantro stems, which bring a hit of fresh and herbaceous.
After about an hour of simmering, maybe less but not much more, it’s time to strain the broth. It loses its fresh flavor rather quickly, so if I don’t plan to use it immediately, I stash it away in the freezer as soon as it’s cool.
Right before I’m ready to assemble the pho—when the noodles are cooked and rinsed, the vegetable fillings prepped, the herbs plucked—I reheat the broth, then season it with salt and sugar, bit by bit, until all the flavors zip into focus.
- 1 large or 2 small onions, peeled and quartered lengthwise
- 2 ounces fresh ginger (a 3- to 4-inch piece, depending on thickness)
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil
- 2 medium leeks, white and green parts, coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 2 large carrots, coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 1 medium daikon radish (12 ounces), peeled and coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 10 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 stalk fresh lemongrass, smashed and coarsely chopped
- 3 whole star anise
- 3 whole cloves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 5 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 handful fresh cilantro stems
Lukas Volger is the author of three cookbooks. His most recent, Bowl: Vegetarian Recipes for Ramen, Pho, Bibimbap, Dumplings, and Other One-Dish Meals, was published this week.