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An Artist’s Pho, Inspired by His Childhood in Vietnam

By TSingapore

  • 9 August 2018

  • 9 August 2018

Danh Vo with a bowl of pho in his Berlin living room, which is above his studio.
Robert Rieger
Danh Vo with a bowl of pho in his Berlin living room, which is above his studio.

Before he was a famous artist, Danh Vo was a boy growing up in Vietnam. The 1970s weren’t exactly stable in that country, so when he was 4, he and his family fled by boat. They wound up in Denmark, where they held onto their heritage through their food. Instead of candy, Vo and his siblings ate sour mangoes dipped in chilli. For meals, they often feasted on pho, the aromatic soup. “In Vietnam,” Vo says, “you eat it for breakfast. You eat it for lunch. You eat it for dinner. You just have a good pot standing there, and you can have it for days. So it’s a very practical thing.”

Robert RiegerWith all the accoutrements laid out, Vo says,
With all the accoutrements laid out, Vo says, "you cook on the table, basically."

Vo’s mother taught him her recipe when he was young, but he has refined it over the decades to suit his evolving palate (cue the grass-fed beef) and restless lifestyle. Now in his early 40s, he makes it in huge quantities, ritually simmering the broth for hours upon hours until the aroma is so overpowering that he has to open the windows of his Mexico City apartment. Then he calls over a bunch of friends and lays out fresh herbs and other accouterments. “You always have the chilli, ginger and fish sauce on the side,” he says. “And people do it themselves. So you cook on the table, basically.”

As showcased in his Guggenheim retrospective this spring, Vo’s art focuses on quotidian objects — such as Ted Kaczynski’s typewriter or Robert McNamara’s chair — that gain deep emotional resonance once you appreciate their context. The same might be said about his pho. “I’m very proud of it today,” he says. “I’ve impressed certain people — even Vietnamese. And, actually, my pho is getting better than my mother’s.”

Robert RiegerVo believes pho broth should be clear — and served piping hot.
Vo believes pho broth should be clear — and served piping hot.

Danh’s Pho

For the broth:

∙ 6.5 pounds of beef bone or oxtail (cook’s preference)

∙ 6 roasted whole big yellow onions

∙ 1 cinnamon stick

∙ 3 or 4 star anise

∙ 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

∙ 1 tablespoon salt

∙ ½ teaspoon ginger, roughly chopped and roasted over a flame

∙ ⅓ cup fish sauce (preferably Phu Quoc brand)

1. Clean the bones by covering with boiling water. Drain.

2. Combine all ingredients in a large pot with two gallons of water and simmer on the stove for several hours, periodically skimming the excess foam off the top. You’re aiming for a clear broth. (“After two hours you can eat it,” Vo says, “but the longer it simmers the better it becomes. I think actually the day after is always the best.”) This recipe makes 18 servings; freeze any extra.


For the rice pho noodles:

1. Soften noodles by soaking in cold water. Drain.

2. Add the drained noodles to individual serving bowls and add boiling water. Stir for 10 seconds. Drain.

3. Add very thin slices of raw grass-fed meat to each bowl. Ladle the broth and boiled onions into each individual bowl. Serve very hot.

4. Garnish with cilantro, holy basil, scallions, bean sprouts, fresh chiles de árbol, lemon and roasted ginger.

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