This Homemade Iced Vietnamese Coffee Will Leave You Buzzing for Hours

Start your day with bittersweet iced Vietnamese coffee, which gets its rich flavor from dark roast beans and satisfying creaminess from sweetened condensed milk.

Two glasses of Vietnamese iced coffee on a blue plate with coffee beans.
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The fragrance of strong Robusta coffee was a constant during my childhood in Vietnam. Earthy with a hint of chocolate and caramel, it was the smell that permeated my home each morning, when my mom, who started drinking coffee in her teens during the 1960s, made her cup of Vietnamese drip coffee: black (cà phê đen) with a bit of sugar and ice. 

Though this is how most Vietnamese people prefer their coffee, many also enjoy cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk). With sweetened condensed milk to temper the harsh bitterness of Robust beans, the drink is incredibly refreshing when enjoyed with ice. Over the past few decades, the drink has become increasingly popular, especially outside Vietnam, where more and more dedicated coffee shops are bringing Vietnamese drip coffee to a wider audience. It’s a drink that leaves you buzzing for hours—my family and friends joke that the beverage is so strong it’d show up on a drug test.

Iced Vietnamese coffee in a glass next to a phin filter and bags of coffee beans.
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A Brief History of Vietnamese Coffee

Despite being the world’s second largest coffee producer, trailing only behind Brazil, Vietnam gets very little recognition for its coffee. Vietnam produces more than 90% of the world’s Robusta beans, which have a reputation for being cheap and low quality, and are often sold to make commodity-grade coffee. While most coffee drinkers prefer Arabica beans for its smooth mouthfeel and caramel notes, Robusta reigns supreme in Vietnam, where it is typically used to make traditional Vietnamese drip coffee.

The French introduced coffee plants to Vietnam in 1857, when the Southeast Asian country was one of its colonies. In her book Rice and Baguette, historian Vu Hong Lien notes that the French government offered “generous tax concessions” to incentivize companies and individuals to plant profitable crops, including coffee. The growth of coffee plantations and accompanying exploitation—both of land and people—caused great resentment among the Vietnamese. This led to mass protests and violent attacks against the French colonists, who responded with arrests, imprisonment, and even executions in order to keep the plantations running.

Today, Vietnamese coffee grows in southern Vietnam’s Central Highlands, where the moderate climate and altitude provide the ideal environment for Robusta plants to thrive. Though Robusta beans aren’t renowned for their flavor and quality, they can produce great coffee when picked at peak ripeness—a task that’s more difficult than it sounds.

On a recent visit to several coffee plantations in Lâm Đồng province, I learned that it can take up to nine months for the cherries to mature properly. Like most fruit, they don’t always ripen at the same rate, and because harvesting coffee cherries by hand is such an arduous task, many plantations rely on machines to do the work. It’s a process that results in a mix of ripe and unripe coffee cherries, and the result is lower-quality coffee—the kind that has given Robusta beans its poor reputation.  

Coffee cherries.
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A new generation of Vietnamese coffee producers and entrepreneurs, however, are striving to change the perception of Robusta coffee by experimenting with innovative farming practices and roasting techniques. Today, curious coffee drinkers will find an increasingly wide range of Vietnamese coffee brands online and at Asian grocery stores.

Trung Nguyen Coffee, from Dak Lak, Vietnam, is one of the largest brands. Their Premium Blend, an affordable and widely available option, combines roasted Arabica and Robusta beans, and has rich chocolate notes. My favorite offering from the brand, though, is the Creative 1, which features Culi Robusta beans and is full-bodied and rich with a hint of vanilla.

Another popular brand is Nguyen Coffee Supply, founded by Sahra Nguyen, who sources coffee beans from Vietnamese farmers and roasts them in Brooklyn, New York. Nguyen, a champion of Robusta beans, has converted many coffee drinkers into lovers of this less popular bean with her various roasts. The Hanoi, a dark roast of Robusta beans with notes of prunes and graham crackers, and the Loyalty, a medium roast of Arabica and Robusta beans with hints of cacao and pomelo, are both excellent for brewing with a phin filter (more on how to do that below).

Among the Vietnamese community, Café Du Monde, the popular coffee from New Orleans, has a loyal following. While Café Du Monde doesn’t share how they source or blend their coffee, their dark roast with chicory is reminiscent of the coffee that the French brought to Vietnam. Many Vietnamese immigrants, reminded of the familiar taste from their youth, gravitate toward Café Du Monde.

Within the last decade, there's been an increasing demand both within and outside Vietnam for specialty coffee with single origin Robusta beans sourced directly from Vietnamese farmers. With more and more consumers seeking out Vietnamese coffee for themselves, the product may finally be getting its long overdue recognition.

How to Select Vietnamese Coffee

With so many brands, blends, and roasts available, which you choose ultimately boils down to personal preference. For traditional Vietnamese drip coffee, it’s best to pick a good-quality single origin Vietnamese Robusta for its bold, nutty flavor, like Trung Nguyen Coffee, Nguyen Coffee Supply, Omni Bev, Cafely, or Copper Cow Coffee.

If you cannot find Robusta beans, many Vietnamese brands offer a blend of Robusta and Arabica. Pick a blend with at least 70% Robusta, otherwise the light flavor of Arabica won’t stand up to the sweetness of condensed milk. Another alternative is using dark roast beans similar to Café Du Monde. Dark roast coffee beans undergo an extended roasting period, resulting in a richer, bolder flavor similar to Robusta beans. You may have to undergo a series of coffee bean taste tests before finding something that you like.

How to Brew Vietnamese Coffee

Use a Phin Filter

While numerous coffee makers and brewing techniques exist, traditional Vietnamese drip coffee is brewed using the phin filter. There is no official record of when and where the phin filter originated, but it’s likely the Vietnamese created it as a simpler, more affordable version of the French press, which the French brought but was too expensive for the working class. Made with stainless steel or aluminum, the phin filter consists of 4 parts: a lid to lock in the heat, a screw-on screen or a gravity press to push down the coffee, a brewing chamber to hold the coffee grounds and water, and a drip plate to filter the coffee.

Placing coffee grounds in a phin filter.
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Take Your Time to Steep

Most people, when making Vietnamese coffee, pour all the hot water into the brewing chamber and let it drip immediately. Some may bloom the coffee in about a tablespoon of water for 30 seconds, which releases carbon dioxide from the roasting process and enhances the overall flavor. (As culinary director Daniel found in his testing, bloomed coffee tastes “richer, rounder, and fuller-flavored.”) 

To find out how to make great Vietnamese coffee at home, I spent a morning learning about phin filter brewing with Vinh Duong of Saigon Coffee in San Diego. Duong, who is determined to brew the best possible cup of coffee, has spent years honing his techniques. As he busied himself with preparing different beverages for his customers, he explained the best way to extract the most flavor from coffee using a phin filter. 

Pouring hot water into a large phin filter set over a large cambro.
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The key, Duong says, is to pour in half of the water and let the coffee steep for five minutes with the lid off and placed beneath the drip plate to prevent it from dripping.  The steep produces a more well-rounded, uniform extract, while the slow drip afterwards yields a concentrated flavor. Duong actually steeps his coffee anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes depending on the volume required, but this long steeping time, while admirable, is simply not realistic for most people when they’re in a hurry.

Unfortunately, the lids of many phin filters in the U.S. aren’t deep enough and may result in some slight coffee spillage during the steeping process. To mitigate this problem, Duong recommends placing both the lid and filter on a plate just large enough to catch any spilled coffee. After steeping, Duong removes the lid, and pours any spilled coffee—along with the remaining water—into the chamber. This time, he removes the drip plate and allows the coffee to finish dripping into the glass below. Depending on the size of the coffee grounds and how tightly fitted the screen is, it can take anywhere from seven to 10 minutes to finish dripping. 

I tested Duong’s method of steeping the coffee for five minutes, and the coffee it produced was much richer and more balanced than the coffee that had only been bloomed for 30 seconds, which had a strong acerbic note. This difference is even more pronounced when condensed milk and ice are added.  

Sweetened Condensed Milk and Ice Are a Must

Cà phê sữa đá means coffee served with sweetened condensed milk (sữa) and ice (đá), and these two ingredients are non-negotiables for Vietnamese coffee. Longevity Brand, or Sữa Ông Thọ, is the go-to sweetened condensed milk for most people in the Vietnamese diaspora. I recommend starting with one tablespoon of condensed milk and adding more as needed to get your desired sweetness. To avoid diluting your coffee too much, wait until the coffee feels cool or lukewarm before adding the ice.

With creamy, sweetened condensed milk and ice to mellow out the bitterness of Robusta beans, Vietnamese coffee is the refreshing drink I reach for when I need a caffeine boost. I drink so much of it that it really wouldn’t surprise me if it did, indeed, show up on a drug test.

A spoon of condensed milk over a glass.
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Remove lid and metal screen from phin filter. Add ground coffee to brewing chamber and shake gently to distribute evenly. Gently push the screen back on until you meet some resistance. (Don’t push the screen all the way down, as it will take longer for coffee to drip and result in an extra strong brew.)

Placing coffee grounds in a phin filter.
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Place lid underneath filter and set on a plate large enough to hold the filter and lid so it can catch any spilled coffee. Add 1/4 cup (60ml) hot water water and let steep until coffee grounds have absorbed all the water and turn black, about 5 minutes. While coffee steeps, place condensed milk into a glass big enough to hold 8 to 12 ounces.

Pouring water into a phin coffee filter.
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Place filter over glass containing condensed milk. Pour in remaining 1/4 cup (60ml) hot water and any coffee that seeped out during steeping process. Allow coffee to drip until all liquid has drained, 7 to 10 minutes. (If it stops dripping because the screen was screwed on too tightly, gently loosen the screen.) Remove filter. Stir coffee and sweetened condensed milk to combine. Add ice, stir, and serve immediately.

Collage of photos: Vietnamese coffee dripping into a glass.
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Special Equipment

8- to 12-ounce phin filter

Notes

Look for inexpensive canned Vietnamese Robusta coffee or a blend of Robusta and Arabica, preferably 70% Robusta and 30% Arabica. If you prefer to grind your own coffee beans, go for a medium fine grind. 

Filtered water or bottled water is preferred for making Vietnamese drip coffee. Harsh water with all its mineral content will ruin a good cup of coffee. Though I’m not very particular about the temperature of the water, I recommend using just boiled water around 195ºF or 95ºC.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The coffee with added condensed milk can be made 2 days ahead and refrigerated. Add ice when ready to serve. 

Bún Chả Hanoi

This quintessential northern Vietnamese dish features charred pork patties and pork belly slices bathed in a steaming dipping sauce served alongside tender rice noodles, fresh herbs, and crunchy pickles for a satisfying meal.

Overhead view of Bun Cha Hanoi
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Bún chả Hanoi is a quintessential Northern Vietnamese dish that brings together smoky, succulent meat patties and pork belly slices in an umami-rich dipping sauce with tender vermicelli noodles, vibrant herbs, and crunchy pickles for a comforting and satisfying meal.

Long before bún chả shot to international fame in May 2016, when former president Barack Obama and the late chef Anthony Bourdain dined at Bún Chả Hương Liên for an episode of Parts Unknown, this humble Northern Vietnamese dish was a staple at our house.  When the episode aired, my family, along with millions of other Vietnamese, watched with our eyes glued to the TV as one of the most powerful figures in the world sat on a blue plastic chair and enjoyed a humble Vietnamese meal, an image unlike anything we'd ever seen of a US president.

Overhead view of a hand lifting noodles of Bun Cha Hanoi
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While phở stands at the top of the Vietnamese culinary pantheon, bún chả is a close second for many Northern Vietnamese, especially my dad. As he often reminisced, “Bún chả stalls were everywhere. Biking home from school, just the billowing wisps of smoke made me salivate before I could see the meat sizzling over the small charcoal brazier. While your nose savors the aroma of the meat, the first taste tells you if the broth is good. Then let yourself be seduced by the meat along with noodles and fresh herbs.” Growing up in San Jose, my mom made bún chả often, more so than phở because phở restaurants were ubiquitous in San Jose while none existed for Northern Vietnamese food. 

On a recent trip to northern Vietnam, I set out to find bún chả as exemplary as my dad’s description from childhood. Following the maze of Hanoi's old quarter, I searched for bún chả everywhere, from street vendors in narrow alleys to more established restaurants–even the restaurant featured in that Parts Unknown episode, Bún Chả Hương Liên.

Overhead view of Bun Cha Hanoi
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Each time I ordered bún chả, I anxiously waited for an explosion of flavors to happen. But the magic didn’t appear; the bún chả tasted no different from what I had back home. 

Despite my repeated disappointment, I persisted. Following the recommendation of our hotel receptionist, I made my way to Bún Chả Đắc Kim, a local gem established in 1965. The distinct aroma of grilled meat imbued with charcoal fire attracted my attention as I got closer. My mouth started salivating even before I sat down. I ordered the typical combo of bún chả and crab spring rolls. A familiar bowl of charred minced pork patties and crispy pork belly pieces bathed in steaming dipping sauce arrived. Among the typical meats, though, were a few pieces of patty wrapped in some kind of green leaf, different from any other bún chả I’ve tried . 

Overhead view of grilled pork paste and pork belly
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As I tried the different pieces of meat, I asked one of the cooks what the leaves were. She generously told me they were betel leaves (lá lốt) and jelly leaves (sương sâm). Both leaves made the patties incredibly fragrant, while the betel leaves imparted a completely different flavor to the pork patties, reminiscent of grilled beef in betel leaves (bò lá lốt). 

When I tasted the dipping sauce, it was completely unfamiliar. While there was a hint of fish sauce, it was incredibly light and fleeting, unlike other places where the sauce was either bland, too sweet, or vinegary. Rather than a diluted version of fish sauce, it tasted like a soup, yet unlike any soup I’ve ever had, drawing me back for spoonful after spoonful. 

Bún Chả Đắc Kim delivered everything that I imagined a delicious bún chả would promise: smoky and juicy pork patties and slices of pork belly bursting with umami flavor and submerged in a light, soupy dipping sauce that was good enough to drink by the glass. As I sat there devouring my meal, I felt the joy and comfort of this quintessential Hanoian dish that my dad often spoke about. If phở Saigon connected me to my southern roots, then bún chả cemented itself as the gateway to my northern family.

Bún Chả Basics

The juiciness of the pork patties in bún chả starts with the type of ground pork used; it should have at least 20 percent fat. The pork is marinated with sugar, fish sauce, shallot, garlic, and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper. The pepper lends a wonderful heat compared to meat patties from other regions like nem lui Hue, grilled pork paste meatballs, or shrimp paste on sugarcane. To develop the flavors, the mixture should marinate for a minimum of 4 hours. It’s then formed into flattened patties about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick. Keeping the size uniform allows even cooking so the outside is perfectly charred while the inside stays moist and juicy. As much as I would love to share a version of meat patties wrapped in jelly leaves and betal leaves, supply is fickle. If you happen to find these leaves at the Asian grocery stores, definitely snatch them and wrap a few meat patties so you can taste the difference. 

Overhead view of pork slices marinating
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Choose a fatty cut of pork for the pork slices, either pork belly or pork butt, to prevent the meat from drying out during grilling. I prefer the former because as the fat renders during grilling, the slices become crispy with a wonderful texture. To cut consistent slices from the pork belly, it helps freeze until firm but not frozen solid. When it’s semi-frozen, you can cut it neatly into 1/4-inch slices. The pork slices go into a marinade with fish sauce, water, vegetable oil, sugar, aromatics, and freshly ground pepper. They also need a minimum of 4 hours for the flavors to develop and meld. 

While it might be convenient to cook the pork in a stovetop grill pan, the result will lack the smoky flavor and char essential to bún chả. Both types of meat taste best grilled. Most bún chả restaurants use a charcoal grill and a metal grilling basket. With one hand, the griller constantly flips a metal grilling basket tightly packed with meat over a charcoal fire while fanning the flame with the other hand to get the char just right. As the fat renders, it hits the charcoal and disperses a tantalizing fragrance that draws a crowd. 

Overhead view of pork patties in a grilling basket
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Even on a home grill, I highly recommend using a metal grilling basket; otherwise, the patties and pork belly slices will fall through the grill grate. A basket also makes flipping the pieces of meat more efficient, given that they need to be turned every minute, since turning the meat frequently allows even cooking and prevents burning.

The Sauce (Nước Chấm)

While the pork is integral to bún chả, it’s the dipping sauce (nước chấm) that makes or breaks the meal. To understand what makes a great dipping sauce, I spent some time with Cuong Pham, the founder of Red Boat Fish Sauce, at his barrel house in Phu Quoc. Traditional fish sauce is made from small fish like anchovies layered with salt and kept in barrels for months as they ferment. Over time, they release the amber-colored glutamate-rich liquid that gets filtered and bottled into the fish sauce sold at your local supermarket. 

During my visit, I got to taste fish sauce at different stages of fermentation, from three months to six, nine, and 12 months. The three-month fish sauce was pungent and harsh—a complete assault on the palate—while the fish sauce aged for 12 months was nuanced and more mellow. Pham credited his high-quality fish sauce to fresh ingredients, the aging process, and the unique climate of Phu Quoc. 

Overhead view of sauce boiling on the stove
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Nowadays, most fish sauce companies have ditched the traditional method of salting and fermenting for convenience and profit by blending chemicals, anchovy powder, salt, sweetener, and sugar in the lab to produce larger quantities of fish sauce. Consequently, not all fish sauces are created equal. Pham recommended looking at the ingredients, their origin, and the degrees (°N) on the label, which represent the protein content in the fish sauce. The higher the value, the higher the protein content, and thus the savory profile and umami it lends to the finished dish.

The dipping sauce of bún chả is served warm to steaming hot, which sets it apart from the room-temperature dipping sauce of other vermicelli noodle bowls. At Bún Chả Đắc Kim, the dipping sauce was boiling when the cook ladled it into the bowl containing the meat. Given how fatty the patties and pork slices are, the high temperature prevents fat droplets from coagulating at the top. 

For the dipping sauce, I recommend using a fish sauce made by the traditional method. Commercial fish sauces blended with additives tend to have an unpleasant aftertaste. I tested different ratios of fish sauce to sugar and water and found that a fixed ratio does not work because the salt content varies between brands. It's better to boil the ingredients together, taste, and adjust as needed, keeping in mind the sauce should taste lightly sweet and savory from the amalgamation with the juices and char of the grilled meat. In Vietnam, bún chả restaurants typically have limes or kumquats, vinegar, and additional fish sauce at the table so diners can adjust the flavor to suit their palate.

How to Eat Bún Chả

To eat bún chả, taste the dipping sauce first before adding other condiments or accompaniments like raw garlic or sliced bird’s eye chile. I prefer the garlicky kick and heat from the raw garlic and freshly ground peppercorns over the sharp heat from the bird’s eye chile. Add fresh herbs to the bowl and throw a small heap of vermicelli noodles in the dipping sauce. Take your chopsticks and pick up the noodles along with meat, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs. The contrast of textures and flavors from pickled vegetables and refreshing herbs, tender vermicelli noodles, and umami from the succulent meat make every bite fun and memorable.

Side view of bun cha hanoi
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For the Pork Patties: In a large bowl, combine ground pork, shallots, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and pepper and mix well. Cover bowl and refrigerate mixture for at least 4 and up to 24 hours.

Two image collage of pork mixture before and after being combined
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For the Pork Belly: Using a very sharp knife, slice semi-frozen pork belly into 2-inch-long, 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Overhead view of cutting pork belly
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In another large bowl, combine hot water and sugar and stir until sugar has dissolved. Add fish sauce, vegetable oil, scallions, shallot, garlic, and pepper and whisk to combine. Add pork belly slices and toss well to coat. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 and up to 24 hours.

Pork belly marinating in a bowl
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For the Pickled Carrot and Kohlrabi: In small bowl, stir water, rice vinegar, and sugar until sugar has dissolved. Add sliced carrot and kohlrabi and let sit at room temperature until pickled, 2 hours.

Adding vegetables to pickling mixture
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For the Dipping Sauce: In a small saucepan, combine water, sugar, and fish sauce. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then boil for 5 minutes. Keep hot. (If making ahead of time, reheat before serving.)

Overhead view of sauce boiling in pot
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To Grill the Meats: When ready to grill, remove pork mixture and pork belly from fridge. Weigh out about 2 ounces of pork mixture for each patty. Using oiled hands, form pork mixture into small patties, about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick. Place formed patties on baking sheet lined with aluminum foil or parchment paper.

Overhead view of forming patties with oiled hands
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Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, turn on all the burners of a gas grill to high, close grill, and preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grill grate.

Overhead view of adding charcoal to the grill
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Brush both sides of pork patties with vegetable oil. Transfer 6 pork patties to a metal grilling basket. Grill over direct heat, turning every minute, until cooked through and browned on the outside, about 8 minutes. Transfer cooked patties to a platter or baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pork patties. Keep warm. 

Two image collage of pork patties being grilled and after being placed on a plate
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Transfer pork belly slices to now-empty grilling basket. Grill over direct heat, turning every minute until cooked through and browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to the platter with the patties. Repeat with remaining pork belly slices. Keep warm.

Two image collage of grilling pork belly and grilled pork belly on a platter with pork patties
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For Serving: Cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Drain and run under cold water. Drain again and set aside.

Overhead view of noodles
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Place the noodles, lettuce, and herbs on a platter. Place the garlic and sliced bird’s eye chiles in separate small bowls.

Overhead view of herbs and toppings on a plate
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Divide grilled pork patties and pork belly slices into 4 bowls. Add pickled vegetables. Ladle about 1 cup of hot dipping sauce into each bowl. Serve immediately with noodles, fresh herbs,raw garlic, and bird’s eye chiles alongside. 

Four image collage of assembling Bun Cha Hanoi bowls
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Special Equipment

Grilling basket

Notes

Make sure to use a traditionally made fish sauce; I prefer Red Boat brand.

For the rice vermicelli, Three Ladies is a good brand. 

Green papaya makes a great substitute for kohlrabi.

The listed fresh herbs are available at most Asian grocery stores or well stocked markets. Any combination of the listed fresh herbs that are available to you will work in this recipe. Cilantro may be substituted for the Vietnamese coriander (rau răm).

Make-Ahead and Storage

The vermicelli rice noodles can be prepared a few hours before assembling the bowl.

The meat can be marinated the night before. 

The dipping sauce can be made the day before and warmed up when ready to use.

The pickled carrot and kohlrabi can be made up to 48 hours ahead. Refrigerate them until ready to use.

Gỏi Gà Bắp Cải (Vietnamese Chicken and Cabbage Salad)

A classic Vietnamese salad of tender chicken, crunchy cabbage, sweet carrot, pickled onion, fresh herbs, and crispy toppings, served with a gingery dipping sauce.

Overhead view of chicken and cabbage salad
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Salads play an integral role in Vietnamese cuisine. They often accompany a larger meal as part of a celebration or can be served as a light standalone dish. Vietnamese chicken and cabbage salad, or gỏi gà bắp cải—gỏi the general term for salad, or nộm in northern Vietnam, gà meaning chicken, and bắp cải for cabbage—is a quintessential example. The combination of tender chicken, crunchy cabbage, sweet carrots, and pickled onions is tossed with tangy vinegar brine and topped with crispy shallots and peanuts. It's then served with a side of aromatic dipping sauce to create an impressive medley of textures and flavors.

Overhead view of single serving of chicken and cabbage salad
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For as long as I can remember, Vietnamese chicken and cabbage salad has been a staple at every family celebration, including special holidays, birthday parties, engagement parties, and even death anniversaries. It’s often served alongside chicken congee at these festive family feasts. This makes sense since the two dishes are linked in preparation: The chicken that is simmered to make the congee broth is cooled down, shredded, and incorporated into this refreshing salad. It’s a practical and delicious way to use chicken to its fullest. 

This refreshing salad needn’t be reserved for just special occasions, though. In my recipe, I’ve broken down the preparation of the chicken, cabbage, carrots, pickled onion, fried shallots, and the dipping sauce into their core components, making this seemingly complicated medley of flavors and textures approachable for any day of the week.

Overhead view of putting fried shallots onto a plate
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One of the easiest ways to streamline the process is to make some of the components in advance. The pickled red onion, the dipping sauce (nước chấm), and the fried shallots can all be made a day or two ahead and stored separately. Alternatively, they can also be made while poaching and resting the chicken.

The dipping sauce, or nước chấm, is made from a combination of garlic, ginger, bird’s-eye chile, sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and water. To enhance the flavor of the garlic and ginger, I like to use a mortar and pestle to crush their cells and release more of their aromatic flavor compounds.

While there are several methods for cooking the chicken breasts, such as roasting, boiling, or steaming, my go-to method is gently poaching the chicken with aromatics like scallion and ginger. It’s a method used in Daniel Gritzer’s poached chicken recipe, and results in consistently tender and succulent meat. 

Overhead view of shredding chicken meat by hand
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The key to perfectly poached chicken that is exceptionally plump and tender, not tight or dry, is maintaining a water temperature between 160 and 180°F (70 to 80°C). The final temperature of the chicken breast meat should be 150℉ (66℃), which is lower than the official USDA guidance of 165℉ (74℃). I assure you that since the chicken is held at these elevated temperatures for so long, the chicken will be perfectly safe to eat—eliminating pathogens like salmonella isn't just a function of temperature but also time. The result, meanwhile, will be much more juicy, than if you were to cook it to a higher internal temperature. You can also adjust the poaching aromatics to your liking by adding onion, lemongrass, or makrut lime leaves to the pot.

As the chicken poaches, use your time efficiently to shred the cabbage and carrots and pickle the onion. I prefer using a mandoline to slice all three as evenly and thinly as possible (the shredding disk of a food processor or even some solid basic knife skills will also work).

Side view of chicken and cabbage salad
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While the contrasting textures of the succulent chicken and crunchy vegetables are a hallmark feature of this salad, it’s important to note we don’t want the vegetables too crunchy. Ideally the vegetables should retain some bite, but not be as firm as they are when plain and raw. I like to gently soften the cabbage and carrot by tossing with the pickled onions and its vinegar brine for about one hour before serving the salad, just long enough to wilt the vegetables slightly, while still preserving some crunch. I also add the shredded chicken to the pickle brine at the same time, giving it a chance to soak in the brine as the flavors meld.

After an hour of sitting, the salad is ready to toss with fresh herbs and top with crispy fried shallots and peanuts. Make sure to hold off on adding these final elements until right before serving to retain their texture. At this point, you’ll want to enjoy the salad right away with the side of dipping sauce, since the longer the salad sits, the soggier it will become.

For the Chicken: In a large saucepan, combine water and salt, stirring until salt dissolves. Add chicken, scallion, and ginger and set over medium-high heat until water temperature reaches between 150 and 160°F (65 to 70°C) on an instant-read thermometer. Cook, adjusting heat to maintain water temperature in the 150–180°F (65–80°C) range, until the thickest part of chicken registers 150°F (65°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 hour. Remove chicken from broth and let rest until cool enough to handle. Strain broth and reserve for another use. Remove and discard chicken skin, then shred meat with your hands and set aside.

Four image collage of cooking chicken, straining broth, removing skin, and shredding chicken
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For the Pickled Red Onion: In a non-reactive bowl, combine vinegar, water, and sugar, and stir until sugar dissolves. Stir in onion and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

Overhead view of quick pickled onions
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For the Ginger Dipping Sauce: Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle, pound garlic and ginger together with sugar (alternatively, use the back of a knife to bruise the garlic and ginger then mince finely, and stir with sugar in a small bowl). Add warm water, fish sauce, and lime juice, then stir to combine. Transfer sauce to a serving bowl and set aside until ready to use.

Two image collage of smashing ginger and salt and adding remaining dip ingredients
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For the Fried Shallots: In a small saucepan, heat oil to 300°F (150°C) over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and fry, stirring constantly for even cooking and adjusting heat as needed to maintain oil temperature between 250 and 275°F (120-135°C), until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried shallots to a paper-towel lined plate and season immediately with salt. 

Overhead view of putting fried shallots onto a plate
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For the Salad: One hour before serving, thoroughly toss together shredded chicken with cabbage, carrots, and the reserved pickled onion with its pickling juice. 

Overhead view of mixing salad together
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

To roast peanuts, preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Place peanuts on a baking sheet lined with foil and roast until golden, 10-12 minutes; check frequently to make sure they don't burn. Allow to cool, then roughly chop.

Two image collage of roasted peanuts on a tray and roughly chopping them
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

When ready to serve, toss the chicken salad with the fresh coriander and perilla and top with the reserved fried shallots and roasted peanuts. Serve with the ginger dipping sauce.

Two image collage of adding coriander and fried shallots
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Special Equipment

Mandoline, mortar and pestle, instant-read or deep-fry thermometer 

Notes

Use a mandoline or the shredding disc attachment of a food processor for easier and faster slicing of the shallot and cabbage.

A mandoline will also create the most even rounds of shallot for frying.

I prefer a combination of green and purple cabbage for a vibrant mix of color in the salad. Feel free to use 5 cups of all green or all purple cabbage in the recipe instead of a combination of the 2 types of cabbage. 

This salad is a great way to use leftover chicken you already have on hand. Omit step 4 and use 2 to 3 cups shredded chicken (dark or white meat will both work well).

Make-Ahead and Storage

The dipping sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. 

The fried shallots can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 months.

Vermicelli Noodle Bowl With Imperial Rolls

Topped with fresh herbs, vegetables, savory imperial rolls, and a sweet and sour sauce, this vermicelli noodle bowl is satisfying, yet light enough to savor on a hot day.

Overhead view of vermicelli Noodle Bowl
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

In Vietnam, vermicelli noodle bowls make an easy lunch and dinner, whether sold from street vendors or made at home. One of the most popular options is fresh vermicelli noodles served with crispy bites of imperial rolls, along with fresh lettuce, a medley of herbs, and bright pickled vegetables. In the hot, humid weather of Vietnam, it's a meal that is both incredibly satisfying but also refreshing and bright.

What Are Vietnamese Rice Noodles?

The dish is built on Vietnamese vermicelli noodles, which are long, thin noodles made from rice. Rice noodles, or bún, were brought to Vietnam by the Chinese during their rule from 179-938 BC. Eventually the noodles were incorporated into Vietnamese-style cooking, becoming an important element in dishes like phở, bánh canh, and netted rice noodles.

Side view of vermicelli noodle bowls
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Bún is a general term for rice noodles, and does not distinguish between size or preparation (whether the noodles are prepared fresh or cooked from dried). In the noodle section at an Asian supermarket, you will find different types of rice noodles such as thick round ones for bún bò Huế (beef noodle soup); incredibly fine ones called bánh hỏi that are woven together like an intricate net to serve as a wonderful base for all kinds of protein; and ones somewhere in the middle that are used for everything from crab tomato noodle soup (bún riêu) to duck-and–bamboo noodle soup (bún măng vịt), spring rolls (gỏi cuốn), and vermicelli noodle bowls like this one. 

How Rice Noodles Are Made in Vietnam

On a recent trip to the Mekong Delta, I visited Sau Hoai’s noodle shop, one of the few remaining noodle factories in Con Tho that still produces handmade rice noodles. Hoai is a second generation noodle maker with over 45 years of experience and oversees and trains workers on the craft of handmade noodles, a practice that is quickly disappearing. Fresh rice noodles with the perfect texture and fragrance require high quality rice, a thorough understanding of mixing flours and water, and a lot of manual labor. 

Overhead view of vermicelli after rinsing
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Traditionally, rice vermicelli noodles were made fresh and sold at markets. The process is a tedious one: Clean rice is steeped in water for several days to ferment. Then the rice goes through a wet-milling process to produce flour. Boiling water is then added to the flour along with tapioca to form a batter , which gets extruded through molds or hand coated into sheets and cut to form various rice noodles of different sizes. Making fresh noodles is a meticulous process that requires the agility and experienced hands of trained workers for each stage of production. 

Fresh noodles, sitting in the humid weather of Vietnam, can start to ferment, resulting in a slightly sour flavor and going bad in a matter of hours. To avoid this, most rice noodles today are made by machines and sold dried, then boiled until soft, similar to dried wheat pasta.

The Key Elements To a Great Noodle Bowl

With time, vermicelli noodle bowls became an iconic dish and popular street food in southern Vietnam. It’s easy to see why. These bowls combine protein, vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled veggies, and nước chấm, a sweet and tangy sauce, all into one satisfying meal. It's a revelatory dish of fresh bright flavors and contrasting textures. The most popular options for protein include imperial rolls (chả giò), grilled pork (thịt nướng), grilled pork paste (nem nướng), grilled chicken (gà nướng), grilled prawns (tôm nướng), sauteed beef (thịt bò xào), and shredded pork (bì). Sometimes these proteins are combined in one bowl, but I prefer not to mix more than three proteins; any more and the flavors become overwhelming. 

My go-to dried vermicelli noodle is Three Ladies Brand. It has a firmer bite than other brands and is less likely to turn undesirably mushy—the springy texture of the cooked noodles is paramount to this dish. It’s important to keep an eye on the noodles as they cook to avoid overcooking and losing their slight bounce. Once the noodles are properly cooked, they are drained and immediately rinsed under cool water to stop the cooking process. Rinsing the noodles also removes the excess starch, which prevents them from sticking together. 

Overhead view
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

The most time-consuming part of this recipe is making the imperial rolls themselves. While store-bought options exist, I unfortunately have yet to find a brand that comes close to what I would call a good-quality product. These really are best when made at home. If you're not up for that, you can also top the vermicelli noodles in this recipe with some of the meats commonly served with broken rice, including the grilled pork and the shredded pork (instructions for both those meats can be found in this broken rice recipe).

The herbs are the unsung heroes of vermicelli noodle bowls―they pack a lot of flavor. In a well prepared vermicelli noodle bowl, you will find ribbons of lettuce along with an array of fresh herbs, such as Thai basil (húng quế), Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), Vietnamese perilla (tiá tô), peppermint (húng lủi), and cilantro, along with distinctive fish mint (dấp cá). It's worth seeking as many of these herbs out at your local Asian grocery stores so you can fully enjoy the result.

Overhead view of two bowls with herbs in the base
Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

I like to tear the herbs into smaller pieces, but they can also be cut into ribbons, similar to the lettuce. Diners can customize and season their bowl to taste with bean sprouts, cucumber, and roasted peanuts add a welcome crunch to contrast the tender noodles, while pickled vegetables and nước chấm add a final pop of sweet and tangy flavor and light heat to the bowl. The end result is a vermicelli noodle bowl that is bursting with fresh flavor bite after bite.

For the Nước Chấm: In a medium bowl, combine water, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice and mix until sugar has fully dissolved. Stir in garlic and chile; set aside.

Two image collage of overhead view of mise en place of ingredients for sauce and mixing sauce together
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For the Vermicelli Noodle Bowls: Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add noodles and boil until tender according to the package instructions (the cooking time depends on the noodle and the brand.) Check for doneness by pressing the noodles between your fingers: they should be soft and have some spring and not mushy. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water, and set aside to cool.

Four image collage of cooking vermicelli noodles
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For Serving: Divide herbs, lettuce, cucumbers, and bean sprouts between large individual noodle serving bowls. Top with noodles followed by imperial rolls. Garnish with roasted peanuts, if using, and pickled daikon and carrot, and leeks. Serve with nước chấm. 

Four image collage of assembling Vermicellie Rice Bowls
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Notes

For vermicelli rice noodles, I recommend the Three Ladies brand, which is available at most Asian supermarkets and online.

The most time-consuming part of this recipe is making the imperial rolls themselves. While store-bought options exist, I unfortunately have yet to find a brand that comes close to what I would call a good-quality product. These really are best when made at home. If you're not up for that, you can also top the vermicelli noodles in this recipe with some of the meats commonly served with broken rice, including the grilled pork and the shredded pork (instructions for both those meats can be found in this broken rice recipe).

Pickled leeks, often labeled “pickled leeks in brine,” are available at most Asian supermarkets in the canned section. Their delicate aroma and sweet-and-sour finish make them a great pairing with these imperial rolls.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The vermicelli rice noodles can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and held at room temperature before assembling the bowl.

Nước chấm can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days ahead. It may thicken as it sits; dilute with water as needed. 

Chả Giò (Vietnamese Imperial Rolls)

Vietnamese imperial rolls’ unique crispy fried exterior and sumptuous filling make for a great appetizer and topping for a rice noodle bowl.

Side view of Imperial Rolls on a plate
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Vietnamese’s ingenious use of ground rice led to the creation of rice paper, a unique product of Vietnam that today is used as the wrappers of two national dishes: Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (summer or salad rolls) and fried spring rolls (imperial rolls). The imperial rolls go by different names depending on the region: chả giò in the south and nem rán in the north. Adding to the confusion, Vietnamese Americans began calling them egg rolls even though they are not made with Chinese wheat-based egg-roll wrappers. Created as a food for celebration, chả giò often serve as an appetizer at family gatherings. They are also one of the most popular street foods in Vietnam.

Overhead view of finished imperial roll plate
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

The Rice Paper

Rice paper is notoriously laborious to make from scratch. The thin liquid mixture is spread over a piece of muslin in a steamer, then transferred to a bamboo mat to dry in the sun, which gives it an almost transparent look and beautiful imprinted basket-weave pattern. Vietnamese rice papers are much thinner than other styles of rice paper you will find at Asian supermarkets in the US. They only need to be rehydrated with a quick dip in water or moistened with fruits and herbs instead of requiring a soak before use. Soaking them too long can cause them to be too sticky or mushy to shape properly.  

Overhead view of rehydrating rice paper
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

When it comes to rice paper wrappers for chả giò, three styles exist: rice flour mixed with a small amount of tapioca that prevents it from tearing when wet; all tapioca flour (so, really not "rice" paper at all); and netted rice paper wrappers made from vermicelli noodles called chả giò rế.

Overhead view of different rice paper options
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

My favorite style of wrapper is chả giò rế because it fries up beautifully with a golden hue and perfect crunch. However, chả giò rế is not widely available. Whenever I find some, I always stock up and keep them in my freezer for months. Since you may not be able to find chả giò rế, I tested both the rice-based and tapioca-based wrappers and found that the tapioca-based rice paper wrappers were more pliable when wet, but there wasn't much difference between the two when it came to frying.  Both work well in this recipe, but tapioca-based wrappers will be easier to roll.

The Dipping Liquid

Unlike Chinese wheat-based wrappers, rice and tapioca wrappers take longer to brown; thus, the dipping liquid benefits from added carbohydrates, in the form of starch or sugar, to speed up the browning process. My mom uses a one-to-one ratio of water to beer or soda (she prefers 7-Up or ginger ale). When I don’t have any carbonated beverages on hand, I substitute by dissolving two tablespoons of sugar into one cup of warm water.  

The Filling

The classic chả giò filling includes carrot, jicama, wood ear mushroom, cellophane noodles, ground pork, shrimp, and aromatics like shallot, scallion, and garlic. Northern Vietnamese tend to use kohlrabi and bean sprouts. Other add-ins include taro, mung bean, shiitake mushroom, ground chicken, crabmeat, tofu, and even snail meat. Each family has their own recipe. 

To keep chả giò crispy, it’s important to minimize the amount of moisture in the filling. Since jicama holds a lot of moisture, I  squeeze out any excess liquid before mixing it into the filling. The same goes for the rehydrated wood ear mushrooms and cellophane noodles. Once the filling is combined, I cook off a small amount of the filling to taste-test either by sauteing or microwaving until cooked through, and adjust the seasoning before filling the rolls. 

Overhead view of filling in a bowl
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Rolling chả giò is an art in itself. Chả giò in Saigon tend to be shorter and rounder, while nem rán in Hanoi look elongated, like cigars. I’ve written this recipe for the shorter and rounder style. But you can make thinner rolls in the style of nem rán by using half the amount of filling per roll. 

Wrapping the filling too loosely results in bursting when they hit the hot oil, but rolling them too tightly will burn the outside before the filling is cooked. When rolling, it's best to keep them snug to avoid any large air bubbles. To make them uniform and easier for frying, I add 1/4 cup of filling in each roll, then shape it into a compact log before folding and rolling. Another trick you can use is to spread the filling in an even layer on a rimmed quarter baking sheet, pack it down to compress and refrigerate until chilled and firm. Once firm, you can cut through the filling to make equal 4 1/2 -inch by 1 1/2-inch logs that can be scooped up and transferred to the wrappers for shaping and rolling.

Overhead view of rolling Imperial rolls
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Frying Fun

My aunt, Co Ngoan of Tamarind Tree Restaurant in Seattle, utilizes a double-fry method for large batches of chả giò to keep them crispy. For a large party, she does the first fry, then refrigerates chả giò until she needs them for the second fry. The first fry requires a low temperature of 325°F (160°C), and the second time at higher temperature between 350 to 375°F (175 to 190°C) to crisp them up. I found in my recipe testing at home for a smaller batch of about 14 total rolls, that a single fry at 350°F ( 175°C) for 8 to 10 minutes produced imperial rolls with a golden  crispy interior and a well cooked and juicy filling.

When chả giò hits the hot oil, the rice paper immediately blisters and puffs like a frog croaking. These bubbles appeal to the kid in me and I’m always tempted to poke at them with my chopsticks. But resist the urge! These bubbles are a useful guide when frying. After adding one roll, wait a few seconds for the bubbles on the wrapper to settle down before adding a second roll to the hot oil. This helps prevent the sticky rice paper wrappers from adhering to each other when added to the hot oil.

I usually then let the rolls fry untouched for the first few minutes, while the wrappers are still soft and delicate. Once the wrappers begin to firm up in the oil, I’ll use tongs or chopsticks to separate them, when the risk of tearing is less. Also, these bubbles from frying lend a certain charm to the look of chả giò.

Overhead view of single imperial roll on lettuce
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

How to Eat Chả Giò

One way to serve cha gio is to cut each roll into bite-sized chunks and add them to a Vietnamese noodle salad with nước chấm as a dressing. As an appetizer, chả giò is eaten with a plate of fresh herbs, including lettuce, Thai basil (húng quế), Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), Vietnamese perilla (tiá tô), peppermint (húng lủi), and fish mint (dấp cá), along with pickled vegetables like daikon, carrots, and leeks, and a dipping sauce (nước chấm). The dipping sauce, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs perfectly complement the crispy imperial rolls to create a balanced and satisfying bite.

For the Dipping Sauce: In a medium bowl, combine 1/2 cup (120ml) warm water with the sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice and mix until sugar has fully dissolved. Stir in garlic and chile, if using, and set aside.

Overhead view of dipping sauce mixed in a bowl
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

 For the Filling: Using your hands, squeeze jicama to remove excess liquid. Spread jicama and carrot in an even layer on a paper towel-lined  rimmed baking sheet and let air-dry for 1 hour.

Overhead view of jiamca and carrots on a sheet tray
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

In a small bowl, soak cellophane noodles in 2 cups (475ml) warm water for 15 minutes. Drain softened noodles, squeeze noodles dry to remove excess liquid, then cut into roughly 1-inch strands. Return to now-empty bowl and set aside.

Two image collage of noodles soaking in a bowl and then cut in half
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

In a separate small bowl, soak wood ear mushrooms in 1 cup (235ml) warm water for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse thoroughly. Chop fine, discarding any tough stems.

Two Image collage of earwood mushrooms soaking in a bowl then finely chopped on a cutting board
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

In a large bowl, combine prawns, pork, carrot, jicama, cellophane noodles, wood ear mushrooms, shallot, scallion, garlic, sugar, salt, and pepper. Using your hands, mix until fully combined. To check for seasoning, cook 1 tablespoon of the filling in a small pan over medium heat or microwave on a plate for 45 seconds before tasting for seasoning. Adjust uncooked filling to taste with extra sugar or salt if needed.

Overhead view of filling
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

To Form and Fry: In a large shallow wide bowl, stir together 1 1/2 cups (355ml) warm water with the soda.  Working with one rice paper wrapper at a time, dip into the liquid until the wrapper is just pliable. Remove and shake off excess water.  Lay moistened wrapper on a clean counter or cutting board. Place 1/4 cup filling just below center of rice paper sheet. Using hands, shape filling into a 4  1/2-  to 5-inch log parallel to counter edge.

Two image collage of wetting rice paper and placing filling in a log towards the bottom edge
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Fold the left and right sides of the wrapper towards the center to enclose filling snugly. Fold bottom corner of wrapper over filling and press gently along length of filling to remove air pockets. Starting at bottom counter edge, gently wrap up and over the filling to form a tight cylinder and finish rolling to seal. Transfer roll seam side down to a rimmed baking sheet. (Do not stack). Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling; you should have about 14 rolls. Cover filled rolls with a damp towel and refrigerate rolls until ready to fry. 

Four image collage of folding wet rice paper around filling and rolling imperial rolls
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Set wire rack in rimmed baking sheet. Line rack with a double layer of paper towels. In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat to 350°F (175°C). Working with 1 at a time, use tongs or spider skimmer to gently transfer 6 rolls to oil and fry rolls until golden brown all over and crispy, 8 to 10 minutes, turning rolls and gently separating rolls with tongs halfway through frying. Adjust burner as needed, to maintain oil temperature of 325℉ to 350℉ ( 160  to 175℃) degrees. Transfer fried rolls to prepared rack. Repeat with remaining rolls, frying 6 to 4 at a time. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Two image collage of imperial rolls frying and resting on wire rack
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For Serving: Serve imperial rolls with lettuce, fresh herbs, dipping sauce, pickled daikon and carrots, and pickled leeks, if using, alongside dipping sauce. To eat, wrap each roll in a lettuce leaf, top with herbs and pickles, and dip into sauce.

Overhead view of folding an imperial roll in lettuce
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Special Equipment

Dutch oven, instant-read thermometer

Notes

Vietnamese rice paper wrappers are sold dried. They come in three styles; rice flour mixed with tapioca starch, all tapioca starch, or wrappers made from vermicelli noodles called chả giò rế. All three styles will work with this recipe, so choose the style you prefer. Rice paper wrappers can be found at most Asian grocery stores and online. 

Chả giò rế is a frozen, ready-to-use product, and the wrappers are separated by thin sheets of paper so that they do not stick together. The package instructions state that they are ready to roll, but should be kept under a moist towel during prep.

A mandoline works great for thinly slicing the carrots and jicama before cutting into thin matchsticks.

To make smaller and slimmer rolls, you may alternatively use just 2 tablespoons filling for each roll to have a total of about 28 imperial rolls per recipe.

Pickled leeks, often labeled “pickled leeks in brine”  are available at most Asian supermarkets in the canned section. Their delicate aroma and sweet and sour finish make them a great pairing with these imperial rolls.

This recipe can be doubled, or even tripled and fried in several additional batches, 6 to 4 rolls at a time.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The filling can be prepared through Step 5 ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 day.

The dipping sauce can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.  If sauce thickens, thin with additional water 1 teaspoon at a time to reach desired consistency.  

Uncooked imperial rolls can be frozen in a single layer, and then stacked with sheets of parchment paper between layers, in an airtight container and frozen for up to 1 month. Do not thaw before frying. Increase frying time from frozen by 2 to 3 minutes.

Phở Saigon (Southern Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)

Phở Saigon delivers a satisfying and hearty bowl of soup featuring five different cuts of beef and rice noodles in a delicate, flavorful broth.

Overhead view of Pho Saigon
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Phở has become a culinary icon in recent years, but its existence is relatively new, when one considers Vietnam’s long history. While most historians agree that phở was invented some time between the late 19th century and the early 20th century in northern Vietnam under the French occupation, its origin is quite contentious. Graphical evidence of phở can be traced back to 1910, when Henri J. Oger, a colonial administrator, commissioned artisans and wood-carvers to document life in Hanoi and the countryside in Technique du Peuple Annamite (Mechanics and Crafts of the Vietnamese People), with two images of phở vendors included in the issue. The birthplace of phở was thought to originate in Van Cu, a rural village in Nam Dinh province, about 90 kilometers southeast of Hanoi in Northern Vietnam.

Contrary to popular belief, phở has no relation with the French pot-au-feu, the one-pot beef and vegetable stew, although feu and phở do sound similar. The common denominators that they share are slow-cooked beef, onion, and cloves. Vietnamese scholar and human rights activist Nguyen Ngoc Bich theorized that the initial idea for phở originated in China’s Yunnan Province where many Vietnamese nationalists fled during the French occupation at the end of the 19th century. Living near the Vietnamese-Chinese border, they may have learned to cook many local Chinese dishes, including a popular goat-meat noodle soup. After returning to northern Vietnam, it's possible they substituted beef for goat meat. 

Overhead view of a bowl of pho being assembled

At the same time, the French’s love for steak led to an increased slaughtering of cows in Hanoi. Leftover bones and other beef scraps were salvaged by Hanoi butchers and sold to street soup vendors. Many Chinese vendors in Hanoi were selling a noodle soup called xáo trâu or ngưu nhục phấn, a popular dish with slices of water buffalo meat cooked in broth and rice vermicelli, and they began switching to beef. As street vendors hawked their soups around town, they called out “fen,” which means rice noodles in Cantonese. When Hanoians adopted this dish, they avoided calling it “fen” because it sounds like “phân,” or excrement in Vietnamese. They dropped the “n” and created phở. 

The phở scene exploded in the city, with vendors roaming the street carrying two boxes slung at the two ends of a bamboo pole and pushcarts to hawk their specialities. By 1930, phở was added to the Vietnamese dictionary, defined as a dish of thinly sliced noodles and beef. Phở stands for both the noodle soup and the rice noodles themselves, bánh phở.  

When I asked Andrea Nguyen, the food writer and  James Beard Award winner of The Pho Cookbook about the origin of phở, she shared her take: “The creation of phở is all about cultures rubbing shoulders in a particular place at a particular time. The French didn’t introduce eating beef to Vietnam, they just happened to like eating a lot of beef. So the colonialists harvested a lot of cows. The noodle soup vendors, many of whom were Chinese, used the leftover cuts and bones to create a noodle soup that they were already kind of making out of water buffalo. So phở happened on Vietnamese soil by combining a lot of creative forces under a particular set of unique circumstances. Who knows when the first bowl of phở as we know it today was made or served.”

Phở made its way to Saigon following the fall of the French Indochina and the Geneva Accords in 1954 when Vietnam was divided in two and southern Vietnam experienced an influx of northerners escaping the communist takeover. Much to the horror of northern Vietnamese, southerners took the humble phở of the north and altered its flavor profile to fit their palate. The broth became much sweeter, and fancy cuts of beef and embellishments like fresh herbs, chile sauce, hoisin, bean sprouts, lime, and other add-ons were more frequent inclusions. Northern phở takes a minimalist approach with emphasis on the quality of the broth, leaning toward a savory profile from plenty of beef bones and meats. The broth tends to be balanced, served with rare beef slices, flat rice noodles, and garnishes consisting of sliced green scallion, mint, sliced chile and quẩy—fried dough sticks, or Chinese doughnuts.

Angled view of pho saigon

Growing up near Saigon, all I ever knew was the southern version. Phở was not something people cooked at home because it was ubiquitous at street stalls and restaurants. With the humid weather and lack of refrigeration, the broth would spoil if not consumed within a day. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, phở made its way across the Pacific Ocean when the influx of Vietnamese refugees dispersed from the aftermath of the war. Missing their favorite bowl of beef noodle soup, they began cooking phở at home. Realizing the economic potential of this humble dish, they set up phở shops across America, Australia, and Europe, anywhere that Vietnamese enclaves congregated. The phở in America resembles the hearty southern version. On a typical restaurant menu, you might see more than twenty options for phở with different combinations of meats. My favorite bowl of phở Saigon contains beef shank, tendon, tripe, slices of rare beef round, and meatballs. Phở is deeply personal and all about customization, so use your favorite cuts of beef.

My Phở: How I Like to Make This Recipe

For a deeply flavored phở broth, I use a combination of beef neck bones, leg bones with marrow, and another cut of beef, usually shank or oxtail, simmered for hours, amalgamated harmoniously with charred ginger, onion, star anise, cloves, black cardamom, cinnamon, coriander seeds, and fennel seeds. Sea salt, rock sugar, and fish sauce are my go-to seasonings.

Regarding the building of flavor, Nguyen advises, “I season my phở broth during the cooking process with spices, salt, aromatics, a touch of sweetness, and sometimes dried seafood. The fish sauce and maybe MSG at the end produce an umami burst to send things over the top.” A good broth should be clear, slightly sweet from the bones with marrow that have been simmering for hours, and richness balanced by a harmonious yet nuanced note of spices.

Overhead view of pho
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Essential Tips for Making Phở Broth

Choose Beef Bones and Meats Thoughtfully

The bones and marrow form the foundation of phở broth. The basic phở broth can be made with the bare minimum of beef neck bones and leg bones with marrow, along with any other flavorful and gelatin-rich cuts like oxtail or knuckles. After you bring the whole pot to a boil, maintain the broth at a gentle simmer to draw out the flavors from the bones, marrow, and meat. For a flavorful stock, you need at least four hours of gentle simmering, but I find six hours even better. The longer the broth simmers, the more intense and robust the flavor will be. The longest that I have done is 8 hours when I’m doubling the recipe for a big gathering—the liquid in a bigger pot has less surface area relative to its volume, so evaporation, and thus flavor concentration, is slower.

Achieving a clear broth requires a few steps. Parboiling the bones briefly and rinsing them removes proteins and impurities that can otherwise cloud the broth. It's also important to keep an eye on your broth while it’s simmering, and frequently skim off the scum and foam that rises to the surface so that it doesn't get churned back into the broth. Finally, straining the broth with a fine-mesh sieve lined with muslin or cheesecloth removes additional solids at the end.

Build Layers of Flavor

While the bones and marrow form the foundation of the broth, the aromatics, spices, and seasonings add character, complexity, and nuance to the broth. Key steps include:

  • Charring the onion and ginger and toasting the spices: This brings out their flavor and fragrance and develops them.
  • Skimming the fat: This should be done occasionally during simmering, but make sure not to remove all of it because the fat molecules help deliver the aroma of the spices.
  • Adding salt and umami in stages: Start the broth with sea salt, then add fish sauce about 3 1/2 hours into cooking, as it tends to lose its flavor if added at the beginning.
  • Adjusting for evaporation: Add 1/2 cup of water at a time if too much liquid has evaporated. Generally, the broth should cook at an almost imperceptible simmer; if it cooks more rapidly, more water will evaporate and the solids will begin to emerge from the broth, a telltale sign that you may need to top it up.
  • Dialing in the seasoning: Towards the end of cooking, taste and adjust the seasoning using salt, fish sauce, sugar, and/or MSG (which of these you use is a matter of personal preference, but I tend to lean towards the extra umami of fish sauce compared to plain salt as a finishing seasoning). Aim for a broth a bit saltier than your liking because the noodles, meat, and garnishes will dilute its intensity.

Phở Saigon Ingredients: A Closer Look

Phở Saigon Beef Cuts

Meet sliced on a cutting board
Serious Eats / Vy Tran
  • Beef neck bones (xương cổ): require long and slow cooking to tenderize the dense muscles. 
  • Bone marrow (xương tủy): The long, straight femur bones contain the most marrow. They add flavor and sweetness to the broth. They are sold in both crosswise and lengthwise sections (or you can ask your butcher to cut the bones for you). Either works, but it can be nice to have the bones cut vertically for easier access to scoop out the marrow if you want to eat it.
  • Brisket (gầu): Brisket comes from the chest of the cow and has alternating layers of meat and fat, which enriches the broth. Brisket tends to be pricier than many other beef cuts.
  • Flank steak (nạm): This cut comes from the underside of the cow near the hind legs. It is a lean cut with very tough, striated muscles full of beefy flavor. Simmer the flank in the broth until tender but not falling apart, for at least an hour.
  • Shank (bắp bò): Beef shank comes from the front leg, which contains lean meat, muscle strands, and tendons surrounding a bone with marrow at the center. It needs to simmer for at least 3 hours for the meat to become tender.
  • Oxtail (đuôi bò): Oxtail is often sold in individual vertebrae with the bone, muscle, and cartilage attached. Both the bones and connective tissue enrich the broth with a deep flavor and velvety texture. They need to simmer for at least 3 hours for the meat to become tender. 
  • Tendon (gân): Tendon is connective tissue that connects muscle to bone. It starts out extremely tough and chewy (you'd be too if you were trying to hold a cow together), but with a few hours of simmering that rubbery collagen melts into tender gelatin. The tendons sold at the butcher tend to be those running down the back of the shank. To serve, slice the tendon against the grain 1/4-inch thick.
  • Tripe (sách): Tripe is the edible lining of the cow’s stomach. While its flavor can be mild, it brings a nice textural contrast to your bowl of phở. Rinse the tripe well before cooking—most tripe sold today comes pre-cleaned, but this is one cut it never hurts to rinse again. Simmer it for one hour to make it just tender enough to slice through while maintaining its bounce.
  • Rare beef (bò tái): This can come from tenderloin, eye of round, or rib eye. For a fancier cut, try filet mignon or Wagyu. Ask your butcher for paper-thin cuts of your preferred beef. If slicing your own meat, freeze it for 30 minutes, then use a sharp knife to cut 1/8-inch slices.
  • Meatballs (bò viên): Beef meatballs are made from shank and dotted with tendon. They come precooked and only need about 5 minutes in the broth to warm up. You can find them in the refrigerated section.

Phở Spices

Spices are important to getting phở's flavor right, so make sure they’re fresh and of good quality. Toast them in the pan to release their oils, and cook them whole in the broth. I use muslin cloth to make a small pouch for the smaller spices like star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, and coriander seeds so that they're easier to fish out later. 

Overhead view of spices in pho
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  • Black cardamom (thảo quả đen): Black cardamom comes in pods that have a tough, dried, wrinkly skin. They have a pungent aroma with a citrus, menthol, and smokey flavor due to the way they are dried. Crush the pods slightly to reveal the seeds and bring flavor to the broth. Green cardamom cannot be substituted for black cardamom because they have different flavor profiles.
  • Cinnamon sticks or cassia bark (quế): These two spices are interchangeable when making phở, although they are quite different from one another. Cassia, also called “Chinese cinnamon,” is what most Americans have in the cinnamon jar in their spice racks, but it differs from true cinnamon. Cassia brings a sweet, aromatic, and pungent note compared to true cinnamon’s delicate flavor. Real cinnamon is known as Ceylon cinnamon. The sticks curl in an almost perfect circle, while cassia sticks curl inward from both sides, appearing like a scroll. Ceylon cinnamon has a delicate, nuanced flavor that works well in both sweet and savory recipes.
  • Cloves (dinh hương): Cloves lend a strong sweet-and-spicy note.
  • Coriander seeds (hạt ngò): Coriander seeds bring a lemony flavor and floral aroma to the broth. 
  • Fennel seeds (tiểu hồi): Fennel seeds have a sweet and light licorice flavor.
  • Star anise (đại hồi): Star anise lends its strong, distinct flavor that is warm, sweet, and spicy to the broth.

The Aromatics

The goal of charring the onion, shallot, and ginger is to burn them a bit to release their fragrant, sweet juices and add a subtle hint of complex char, which enhances the flavor of the broth (just don't go too far, or you'll overwhelm the broth with a burnt flavor). In Vietnam, home cooks char the aromatics over an open flame; I do the same on my gas stove. If you don’t have a gas stove, you can use your grill, cast iron pan, or broil them in the oven.  

Overhead view of charred onion and ginger
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  • Ginger: Smash fresh ginger to release its oils before charring. Avoid adding more ginger than what the recipe states or the spicy note will overwhelm the rest of the spices.
  • Onion/shallot: Use either onion or shallot. Quarter the larger onions and halve the smaller ones. Shallots are pricier, so I lean toward onion. Don’t overdo the onions, as I and others have found they can sour a broth when used in too-high quantities, although the effect won’t always emerge until two to three days after cooking the broth.

The Seasonings

  • Salt: Salt is the broth's seasoning foundation. It augments flavor, lessens bitter elements, and enhances sweetness. I use sea salt and add it at the beginning. Depending on your favorite brand, the saltiness might vary.
  • Fish sauce: Similar to salt, fish sauce adds not only saltiness but a generous dose of umami and a subtle savory depth to the broth. Fish sauce comes in different grades; make sure to pick a good-quality brand like Flying Lion Fish, Three Crabs, and Red Boat.
  • Rock sugar: Sugar is used in phở as the main sweetener. Look for yellow rock sugar, not white. The yellow rock sugars bring a subtle sweetness whereas the white rock sugars taste similar to granulated sugar and can be cloyingly sweet. Some home cooks use daikon or apples instead of the rock sugar to sweeten their broth. If you want to experiment, add a pound of daikon or two small Fuji apples to the broth (I'm not a huge fan of the daikon, though, as its sweetness is very mild but its turnip-like daikon flavor is not). 
  • MSG: The use of monosodium glutamate is contentious among home cooks and phở masters. It is a flavor enhancer, which brings that umami boost that Nguyen values so much. Many phở restaurants use MSG because it’s a cheap ingredient to flavor the broth. There's not necessarily anything inherently wrong with MSG, but I prefer to build umami with more complex ingredients, including fish sauce, quality beef bones, and the marrow itself. If you want to experiment, though, start with 1/2 teaspoon of MSG, and taste the broth before adding any more.

The Noodles (Bánh Phở)

Three types of phở noodles exist: fresh, semi-fresh, and dried. Fresh bánh phở is not widely available, generally costs more, and requires refrigeration. Dry bánh phở is widely available, inexpensive, and can be stored at room temperature for a very long time, but it takes much longer to cook (about seven to ten minutes, depending on the brand and size). My go-to is semi-fresh bánh phở that you can find in the refrigerated noodle section at the Asian grocery stores. They only need about 30 seconds of blanching in boiling water. Avoid overcooking; otherwise, you risk getting mushy noodles from the residual heat of the broth.

Overhead view of noodles
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The Garnishes

Vietnamese cuisine emphasizes fresh herbs, and phở is no exception. 

  • Thai basil (húng quế): Thai basil is synonymous with phở. It has a distinctive liquorice or sweet anise note that adds a complex flavor to your phở. 
  • Sawtooth herb (ngò gai): Also known as Mexican cilantro or culantro, sawtooth is a small, compact herb consisting of long and serrated, lanceolate leaves arranged in a rosette pattern around a central stem. They have intense herbal, citrusy, and grassy notes well suited for phở.
  • Mint (húng lủi): Also known as spearmint, this is a common herb that northern Vietnamese use to garnish their phở. It is not as popular as Thai basil or sawtooth herb.
  • Cilantro (ngò) is an essential garnish for phở, bringing a bright flavor.
  • Bean sprouts (giá): Bean sprouts served alongside phở come from sprouted mung beans. In a restaurant, you can order them raw or lightly cooked. Their crunch adds another layer of texture.
  • Bird’s eye chile (ớt): The heat factor from bird’s eye chile is quite high depending on the variety you use.  Most American phở restaurants serve sliced jalapeño instead of bird’s eye chile.
Plate of garnishes
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How to Assemble and Eat a Bowl of Phở

Arrange the cooked noodles in the bowl, then layer with different types of meat. Top with cilantro, scallion, and thinly sliced onion before gently ladling the broth over the ingredients without disturbing them.

Everyone enjoys their phở differently. When my bowl of phở comes to the table, I like to taste the broth first and appreciate its delicateness, experiencing the different notes from the spices and aromatics. Soon after, I tear the Thai basil and sawtooth herbs into small pieces and drop them directly into my bowl, along with the lightly blanched bean sprouts, and give it a quick stir. Then I fill my spoon with some noodles, meat, and herbs, and a bit of broth, and enjoy everything in one bite. 

With everyone’s taste being different, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and sriracha are often served alongside, meant to enhance the broth by adding just a touch. I advise using those condiments with caution. While there's no right or wrong way, I don't really understand why one would invest so much time creating a complex yet delicate broth and then overpowering it with generous doses of hoisin and sriracha. Instead, I like to keep the condiments separate from my broth and have a small plate where I mix the hoisin sauce, sriracha, and a squeeze of lime juice to dip the meat in. If a broth strikes me as bland, I might stir in just a drop of hoisin to it, but that's about it.

Overhead view of adding broth to pho
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Over the years, phở has experienced a tsunami of popularity and international fame. For many Vietnamese from the diaspora, phở is more than nostalgia, a comfort food, and reminder of home. Nguyen’s words perfectly capture this sentiment: “Phở has a beautiful history and reflects the experience of the Vietnamese people in the 21st century. We’re talking not just cooking technique and flavor, but also the colonial, war time, and diaspora experience. Phở is modern Vietnam bundled up in a bowl of rice noodle soup and the flat rice noodles themselves.”

Now that you know the ins and outs of homemade phở, be ready for a pho-nomenal bowl of your own.

For the Soup: Using a broiler with the oven rack in the highest position, in a dry cast iron skillet over high heat, or over an open medium gas flame, char onion and ginger, using tongs to rotate for even charring, until softened and lightly blackened, about 10-12 minutes. Allow to cool, then peel the ginger and discard any heavily blackened parts and set aside.

Overhead view of charred onion and ginger
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In a medium cast iron or stainless steel skillet, toast cloves, star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander seeds, and fennel seeds over medium-low heat until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Let cool, then wrap cloves, star anise, coriander  seeds, and fennel seeds in muslin and tie off with kitchen twine.

Two image collage of spices being tossed in a skillet and then wrapped in cheesecloth
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Wash all bones, shanks, tendons, and tripe thoroughly in water. Transfer beef leg and neck bones to a stockpot and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high hea, then let boil vigorously for 5 minutes to release foamy impurities.

Overhead view of foamy impurities in boiling water
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Pour off water, then rinse bones to remove any remaining impurities. Wash stockpot thoroughly.

Overhead view of rinsing bones
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Return bones to stockpot along with shank and tendons to stockpot. Add cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, spice pouch, charred onion and ginger, salt, rock sugar, and 4 1/2 quarts (4.3L) water. Bring to a boil over high heat and skim off scum. Reduce heat to low and let simmer gently, uncovered, frequently skimming any scum and fat that floats to surface, for 3 hours.

Overhead view of onions and spices added to pot and skimming off releases impurities
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Add tripe and simmer for 30 minutes. Add fish sauce and continue to simmer for 30 minutes longer.

Two image collage of tripe and fish sauce being added to pot
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Remove shank, tendon, and tripe and shock them in a bowl filled with ice water to retain their texture. Drain and set aside.

Overhead view of meat in an ice bath
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Remove broth from heat, then remove neck bones and bones with marrow and reserve for another use (I recommend eating it later as a snack). Let broth stand for 10 minutes to settle any sediment, then carefully strain broth through a mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or muslin, being careful not to pour sediment through; you should have about 12 cups (2.8L) broth.

Overhead view of straining meat through cheesecloth
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Return broth to a large clean pot, then taste and season with additional fish sauce and rock sugar to your liking. Set aside until ready to serve.

Broth returned to pot
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To Assemble and Serve: Slice shank, tendon, and tripe crosswise against the grain into thin slices. Set aside.

Meet sliced on a cutting board
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Arrange Thai basil, sawtooth herbs, bean sprouts, jalapeño slices, and lime wedges on a large plate.

Toppings arranged on a plate
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Place sliced onion, scallion, and cilantro in separate bowls.

Onions, chives, and cilantro in small bowls
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Cook noodles according to package instructions. Strain and rinse noodles with cold water.

Overhead view of rinsing noodles
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For each serving, place about 4 ounces (115g) noodles in each bowl. Top with a few pieces of sliced shank, tendon, tripe, meatballs, and raw beef round. Garnish with sliced onion, scallion, and cilantro. Ladle about 1 1/2 cups hot broth into bowls and sprinkle with freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately with garnishes.

Four image collage of assembling pho saigon
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Special Equipment

Fine mesh sieve, muslin cloth, kitchen twine

Notes

If you plan on doubling the recipe, simmer for 8 hours.

To blanch the mung bean sprouts, bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the bean sprouts and blanch them for 45 seconds. 

Vietnamese meatballs can be found in the refrigerated section at the Asian grocery stores. Freeze leftover meatballs and defrost them in the fridge before cooking.

It is very difficult to slice beef so thinly at home; your best bet is to ask the butcher to do it for you, or to shop at an Asian grocer where you can find pre-sliced beef. If you do want to try slicing it yourself, freeze the beef until partially frozen (not rock-hard, but quite firm), then slice as thinly as possible with a very sharp slicing knife.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Refrigerate unused broth and cooked meat separately in lidded containers for up to three days. To freeze unused stock, divide in portions in zipper-lock bags. Lay flat on a baking sheet to freeze. They can be frozen for up to 3 months. When ready to use, thaw them in the fridge overnight. Reheat the broth and re-season to taste.

Cơm Tấm (Vietnamese Broken Rice)

Broken rice is an iconic Southern Vietnamese dish piled high with delicious grilled and shredded pork, pork-and-egg meatloaf, fresh and pickled veggies, and a tangy-sweet drizzling sauce.

Overhead view of Vietnamese Broken Rice
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For Vietnamese, rice is life! Vietnamese eat rice from breakfast to lunch and dinner, and even dessert, albeit in different forms. Growing up in Vietnam, I do not remember a single day that my family skipped rice. The phrase for having a meal, ăn cơm, translates to "eating rice"—Vietnamese history and food culture revolve around it. 

Overhead view of broken rice dish being assembled
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As one of the world’s leading rice exporters, Vietnam exported 6.4 million tons of rice in 2021, according to the USDA. But much of what Vietnam sends to the rest of the world are perfect rice grains, not the broken rice, or cơm tấm, Vietnamese love so much. Broken rice are the grains damaged during the drying and milling process, which, outside of Vietnam, are generally considered inferior to intact ones. Among the Vietnamese, however, the feeling is much different and demand for broken rice is so high that some manufacturers will manually break rice grains just to produce enough. While broken rice by itself tastes no different from regular whole rice grains, it does have a couple advantages: Thanks to their smaller size, the broken grains cook faster and soak up sauces and flavors better. 

Historically, rice farmers in the rural Mekong Delta kept broken rice both as animal feed and for their own meals. Broken rice was originally served with just two ingredients: bì (shredded pork skin) and mỡ hành (scallion oil), and was often stigmatized as peasant food. As people from the Mekong Delta moved to Saigon after 1975 for better job opportunities, they introduced broken rice to the city dwellers. Since then, broken rice has become one of southern Vietnam’s most iconic foods, available from street carts and sidewalk vendors, and there are even restaurants dedicated to this popular dish.

Nowadays, broken rice has evolved from its humble beginnings; these days you’ll see it dressed with fancier cuts of meat and topped with many delicious add-ons. Besides shredded pork skin, you can choose from popular options such as grilled pork chop (thịt sườn nướng), grilled pork (thịt nướng), grilled pork paste (nem nướng), grilled chicken (gà nướng), steamed pork-and-egg meatloaf (chả trứng hấp), or a sunny-side-up fried egg. The whole plate is topped with scallion oil, pickled vegetables, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, and a tangy-sweet fish sauce dressing drizzled over everything. Some places serve a bowl of pork broth to slurp along with the broken rice.

My favorite combination is grilled pork, shredded pork, and pork-and-egg meatloaf. Choose what your taste buds fancy, or go all-out with a special that includes everything on the menu.

The Main Event: How to Cook Broken Rice

Using a rice cooker is an almost foolproof method of cooking rice to obtain those perfect fluffy and sticky grains. Before cooking, I wash the excess starches of the rice with running water until it is no longer cloudy, which helps prevent the grains from excessively sticking to each other once cooked. Then, with a 1:1 ratio of broken rice to water, I put it all in the rice cooker and let it work its magic.

If you don't have a rice cooker, you can of course also cook the rice on the stovetop, which this recipe also provides instructions for.

Component 1: Grilled Pork

For the grilled meat, I like to use pork butt, which has more fat and tends to be juicy after grilling compared to leaner cuts like the loin. Have your butcher slice the meat about 1/8-inch-thick so that it is easier to marinate and grill. The marinade is a simple mixture of fish sauce, water, sugar, freshly ground pepper, and vegetable oil, along with my favorite aromatics of shallot, scallion, and garlic. Marinate the meat overnight, or up to 24 hours, before grilling.

Pork Skewers on the grill
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You will need six to eight 8-inch wooden skewers to thread the pork, and it's best to soak them in water for 30 minutes to prevent them from burning during grilling.

I like to cook the skewers over a two-zone fire, in which the grill has burning-hot coals on one side but not the other. This way, you can sear the pork first directly over the coals to get some good browning and flavor development, then move them to the cooler side to finish cooking without the risk of them burning.

Component 2: Shredded Pork and Pork Skin

What I love about this topping is the textural contrast between the chewy pork skin and crisp-tender meat. Store-bought shredded pork skin is made from skin with the fat removed that is then boiled and sliced super thin. You can make your own pork skin, but I prefer the convenience of premade options widely available at Asian supermarkets. 

The pork skin itself is pleasingly chewy, and it's tossed with pork butt that's been simmered until cooked-through and tender, then crisped in a hot pan and cut into matchsticks. Both the sliced pork and pork skin are mixed with minced garlic and toasted rice powder (thính), the latter lending an earthy, nutty aroma and pleasing grittiness to the pork and skin.

Component 3: Steamed Pork-and-Egg Meatloaf

Dubbed as “Vietnamese meatloaf,” chả trứng hấp is a humble dish made from ground pork, cellophane noodles, wood ear mushrooms, shallot, scallion, fish sauce, sugar, and freshly ground pepper. Other proteins that work great with this recipe include ground chicken, shrimp, and crabmeat. Soak both the cellophane noodles and wood ear mushrooms in warm water for 15 minutes to rehydrate before incorporating them with the other ingredients. 

Overhead view of egg topped meatloaf
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South Vietnamese steam the mixture, while north Vietnamese pan-fry it. Baking it or cooking it in a pressure cooker are other options. If you do not own a dedicated steamer, fill a large pot with about 2 inches of water, put a wire rack inside with the loaf pan rested on top, cover with a vented lid, and proceed with steaming. The whole mixture is suspended in beaten egg whites, steamed for 25 minutes, topped with beaten egg yolks, and steamed for another 5 minutes, resulting in two beautiful, distinctive layers.

Assembling and Eating

Serving the broken rice and toppings goes something like this: fill small bowls with the cooked broken rice, then invert the rice onto a plate. It should hold a domed shape once the bowl is removed. Next to the rice dome you can assemble the toppings. The grilled pork should still be warm, the meatloaf is good just slightly warm, and shredded pork mixture can be room temperature or slightly warm. 

Side angle view of a plate of Broken Rice
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Then drizzle the scallion oil over the rice, the grilled pork, and the shredded pork. Add a few pieces of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber next to the meat, and serve it with the dipping sauce and pickled vegetables on the side.

For the Grilled Pork: In a large mixing bowl, combine water, fish sauce, sugar, and vegetable oil and whisk until sugar has dissolved. Add shallot, scallion, garlic, and pepper to the bowl. Add pork to the marinade and mix well to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.

Overhead view of pork marinating in a bowl
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When ready to grill, thread marinated pork on soaked skewers. Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to high. Cover and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate.

Overhead view of marinated pork on skewers
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Set skewers over coals or burners and cook until lightly browned on both sides, about 2 minutes. Move meat to cooler side of grill and cook, turning frequently and basting meat with the marinade, until cooked through and no pink remains, 12 to 15 minutes; stop basting about 5 minutes before the end of cooking time to avoid contamination with raw meat juices. Set aside and keep warm.

Two image collage of pork skewers on the grill and being basted with marinade
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Meanwhile, for the Pork-and-Egg Meatloaf: In a small bowl, soak cellophane noodles in 2 cups warm water for 15 minutes. Drain softened noodles, blot dry with paper towels to remove any excess water, then use kitchen shears to cut them into 1-inch strands. Set aside.

Two image collage of noodles being soaked and cut with scissors
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Meanwhile, in another small bowl, soak wood ear mushrooms in 1 cup warm water for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse them thoroughly; squeeze out any excess moisture, then blot dry on paper towels. Discard any tough stems. Chop into roughly 1/4-inch pieces, and set aside.

Overhead view of mushrooms roughly chopped on a cutting board
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In a large bowl, beat egg whites until bubbly but still liquidy, about 1 minute. Whisk in fish sauce, sugar, and pepper. Mix in ground pork, cellophane noodles, wood ear mushrooms, shallots, and scallions until thoroughly combined.

Overhead view of mixing pork, egg, noodles, and seasonings in a bowl
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Line a 4- by 7-inch loaf pan or round ceramic baking dish with parchment paper (choose whichever vessel will best fit inside a steamer setup). Spoon in pork mixture, pressing down to pack tightly. Place a steamer over a saucepan of vigorously boiling water. Transfer meatloaf mixture to steamer, cover, and steam at medium-high heat until meatloaf is puffed and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 minutes.

Overhead view of meatloaf being flattened and placed into a steamer
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Beat egg yolks lightly in a bowl. Open lid of steamer and pour egg yolks on top of meatloaf. Cover and steam until yolk is set, 5 to 10 minutes longer. Remove meatloaf from heat and set aside. Let cool for at least 1 hour (cutting into the meatloaf while still hot may make it fall apart). When ready to serve, unmold meat loaf and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices.

Two image collage of adding egg to meatloaf in steamer and meatloaf being removed
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For the Shredded Pork: In a medium bowl, soak shredded pork in just enough warm water to cover for 15 minutes. Rinse and drain thoroughly. Squeeze out as much water as possible. Spread pork skin out on a tray lined with paper towels to absorb excess moisture.

Overhead view of shredded pork skin
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In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups (710ml) water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon salt and stir to dissolve. Add pork butt and cook until meat thermometer registers 145°F (63°C) in the center of the thickest part, about 20 minutes. Remove from pan and plunge into a bowl of ice water to cool. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.

Two image collage of pork butt cooking in pot and then being dunked in an ice bath
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In a 10-inch stainless-steel skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Sear pork butt on all sides until a nice brown crust forms, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. When cool enough to handle, slice pork into matchsticks. In a large bowl, combine pork matchsticks, pork skin, garlic, roasted rice powder, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt and mix well. Set aside.

Two image collage of pork butt browned in pan and then shredded and combined with pork skin on a plate
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For the Broken Rice: Rinse broken rice with cold water until no longer cloudy, then drain. In a rice cooker, combine 3 cups of water with rinsed broken rice and cook according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Alternatively, to cook on the stovetop, in a large 4- or 5-quart pot, combine water and rinsed rice and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let rice rest, covered, for 10 minutes, then uncover pot and fluff rice to allow excess moisture to escape. Keep warm.

Overhead view of fluffing rice
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For the Drizzling Sauce: In a medium bowl, combine water, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice and mix until sugar has dissolved. Stir in garlic and chile. Set aside.

Overhead view of adding garlic and chiles to vingear
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For the Scallion Oil: In a medium microwave-safe bowl, combine scallion, oil, salt, and sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave for 60 seconds. Remove wrap and mix well.

Overhead view of scallion oil
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To Assemble and Serve: Remove grilled pork from skewers. Divide rice onto serving plates. Arrange warm grilled pork (on or off skewer, as desired), slightly warm sliced pork-and-egg meatloaf, and shredded pork around rice. Drizzle scallion oil over rice and meat. Add lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber next to meat. Serve with drizzling sauce, pickled vegetables, and pickled leeks on the side.

Overhead view of finished platter of broken rice with all elements
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Special Equipment

Rice cooker, steamer, 4- by 7-inch loaf pan or round ceramic baking dish, 8-inch wooden skewers

Notes

If you have trouble finding a butcher to slice the pork butt thinly for you, try the butcher at a Vietnamese or Chinese market, as this is not an uncommon request for them. To slice your own, freeze the pork butt until partially frozen, then slice thinly with a very sharp knife.

You can make your own roasted rice powder using this Thai recipe, but note that Vietnamese use uncooked jasmine rice instead of the glutinous rice called for in the Thai version. For store-bought roasted rice powder, look for brand Thính Saigon in market's seasoning section.

Pre-packaged pork skin can be found in the refrigerated or frozen section at Asian supermarkets. If you cannot find pre-packaged pork skin, you can make your own using this recipe.

Pickled leeks taste similar to pickled ramps and can be found at Asian supermarkets in glass jars in the canned food section.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Since this recipe has multiple components, marinate the pork, prepare the drizzling sauce, and cook the pork-egg meatloaf the day before. On the day of, make the shredded pork, scallion oil, cook the rice, and grill the marinated pork.

The drizzling sauce can be made 2 days ahead and diluted with water if it thickens in the fridge. 

The pork-egg meatloaf can be made 2 days ahead and rewarmed in the microwave or re-steamed.