If you’ve ever made traditional pho from scratch, you know there’s nothing quick about it; it’s a labor of love that involves simmering beef bones, slow-roasting onions, and steeping aromatic spices.
With that, you’re also quite aware that there’s nothing vegetarian about it.
This vegetarian pho is the farthest thing from a traditional pho in that sense, but the flavor profile is damn near the same and I think I did it justice for a quick fix phony pho for my fellow pescetarians/vegetarians.
How I fell in love with pho.
I first tried pho eight years ago. The hype surrounding it escalated very quickly—the same way it did with sushi a few years prior. All of a sudden, everyone in my circle of friends was talking about it. “Let’s grab a bowl of pho” quickly became the new “Let’s grab coffee”. We’d pull and slurp our noodles mid-conversation while drowning our woes in the comfort of the aromatic broth spiced with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and star anise.
Mention pho, and the word euphoric comes to mind.
How pho came to be in the US.
I’m a bit of a food history nerd, and how pho came about in the US is truly a story about soothing one’s soul with a bowl of soup.
When refugees were fleeing Vietnam to escape communist rules and degrading economic conditions, the US was the country of choice thanks to the relationship between America and South Vietnam before the Fall of Saigon. Vietnamese refugees, feeling isolated in a new country, sought comfort in their own food—such as pho. Unfortunately, finding the right ingredients to create pho was a challenge in North America.
Years later, a few business-savvy Vietnamese imported these ingredients and started selling them at local Asian markets so that refugees could indulge in a cozy bowl of what tasted like home.
Having these ingredients available sparked a movement in opening pho shops and, as a result, US citizens were treated to a taste of Vietnam.
This is how pho was established in the US.
Anytime I see or eat pho, I reflect on this and the fact that people—no matter where they’re from or what they’ve been through—rely on finding comfort in food.
If there’s one thing we as human beings all have in common, it’s that.
The deal with this vegetarian pho.
Since pho isn’t pescetarian or vegetarian friendly, I needed to find a way to sate my craving.
One thing that stands out about pho is the aromatic broth. By toasting the spices and steeping them in a basic store-bought (or homemade) vegetable broth, you can totally get the flavor you covet. All that’s different is the lack of oiliness and richness from the bones, marrow, and fat. I guess you could consider this a lightened up broth.
Other than that, you’ve still got your silky rice noodles, punchy jalapeño, fresh basil and cilantro (or flat-leaf parsley for people like me who can’t stand cilantro), and whatever extra saucy fixin’s your little heart desires.
The best part? This pho takes a measly 30 minutes, if that, to make from beginning to end, as opposed to the six-ish hours it takes to make that bone broth. (Which is totally worth it if you’re an omnivore, though.)
I really hope this recipe brings the same comfort to others as it does to me. We all need easy comfort food for long days, for crummy days, and for lazy rainy days. I’ve got Ramen bowls for this too, y’all.
If you make this dish, snap a photo and tag me on the Insta @killing__thyme! I love seeing your creations.
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Quick and Easy Vegetarian Pho
- 4 oz dried rice noodles
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 2-3 TBSP tamari or low-sodium soy sauce If you're pescetarian, replace 1 TBSP with fish sauce
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 star anise
- 6 whole cloves
- 5 cardamom seeds, lightly crushed Buy cardamom pods and break them open to get the seeds.
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 white onion, thinly sliced (preferably with a mandolin on the thinnest setting)
- 1 jalapeño, thinly sliced
- bean sprouts
- Fresh Thai basil (can use regular basil) and cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
- Lime wedges
- Chili paste (sambal oelek)
- Sriracha sauce
- Hoisin sauce
- Cheesecloth or a steeping ball
- Start by toasting your spices. (Toasting the spices will give you a richer flavor, which I think is important in this recipe where we're skipping out on bones/fat/meat.) Heat a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Put the cinnamon stick, star anise, whole cloves, cardamom seeds, and fennel seeds in the sauce pan and heat them until lightly toasted, about 3-5 minutes. Shake the pan often to prevent burning. The spices should be aromatic; set aside.
- Bring 4 cups of vegetable broth to a simmer in a medium-large saucepan over moderate heat. Add the tamari or soy sauce, and if you're pescetarian, the fish sauce as directed. Add the thinly sliced onions.
- Place the spices in a cheesecloth or steeping ball. (If using a steeping ball, put everything in it except the cinnamon stick since it won't fit, and simply place the cinnamon stick into the broth. You can easily fish it out later.) Place the vessel into the broth to steep for 15 minutes while the broth simmers.
- While the broth simmers, prepare the rice noodles as per the package's instructions.
- Once the rice noodles have been cooked, drained, and rinsed, transfer them to serving bowls.
- Remove the spices from the broth and give the broth a good stir. Carefully pour the broth over the noodles and garnish the soup with your choice of toppings + sauces. Give your bowl a refresh spritz of lime before eating.