Instant Pot Vegan Pho (Pho Chay)
This recipe works well on the stovetop but a pressure cooker cuts the time in half. Even meat lovers will enjoy this veggie-loaded pho.
When a new restaurant serving pho and banh mi (Vietnamese noodle soup and sandwich, respectively) opened on University Avenue in Palo Alto earlier this year, my husband and I were among its first patrons. Though there’s another Vietnamese restaurant in the area that’s been around for years its limited vegetarian offerings (which is understandable for a beef noodle joint) kept us from visiting very often. The veggie pho and spring rolls at the University Avenue spot immediately caught my husband’s eye and we’ve been regular customers since.
Now whenever the owner sees us at our usual outdoor table she immediately sends over a refreshing iced tea, always on the house.
Where I have explored the menu and tested (and enjoyed ) their various beef pho, banh mi, rice plates and salads, my husband has been loyal to the vegetarian selections, namely the soup. The large bowl is filled to the brim with fresh rice noodles, broth, tofu and an assortment of vegetables. And on the days I would order something other than soup I would always reach for another soup spoon and help my husband with the broth, so I’ve come to recognize the qualities he loves about it…and unfortunately also his disappointment at how inconsistent the flavors have been at times. Some days the broth was perfect–flavorful with a hint of spice and just a touch sweet from the vegetables. Other visits the broth would either be bland or just too sweet.
So I set about to crack the code on pho chay or vegetarian pho.
What is in Vegetarian Pho (Pho Chay)?
My goal was to come up with a veggie pho recipe that would be consistent with a traditional Vietnamese recipe. This means that all the flavor would come from plant-based sources and the aromatic spices that make pho taste like pho–cinnamon, star anise, cloves and cardamom. The dilemma? My husband isn’t crazy about these flavors–they are no wallflowers, after all. The local restaurant’s pho, according to the owner, caters to the American palate so those spices have been toned down and the sweetness amplified (even too much, sometimes to my non-Asian husband’s disappointment).
My husband flat out rejected my first two attempts at home, even with toned down spices. I had even compromised on using the traditional spice blend because I couldn’t find the right balance for the amount of liquid I was cooking.
As a remedy I was inspired to use allspice, hopefully maintaining the integrity of a traditional recipe, since allspice captures the warm, peppery, woodsy notes of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom and it worked wonderfully. I kept the star anise.
My Tips for Flavorful Vegetarian Pho
The next challenge was to harness as much flavor as I could from vegetables to make the broth as deeply satisfying as the meat-based versions. Here are my tips:
- Use a medley of fruits and vegetables. My motley mix includes daikon radish, carrots, dried shiitake mushrooms, onion, ginger, apple and corn, the latter two for mild sweetness. This variety adds dimension and complexity to the broth. You can use your favorite vegetables to serve with the finished product.
- Char the vegetables and toast the spices. This is a great way to extract as much flavor from your ingredients as possible. For this recipe I charred the radish, carrots, onions, ginger and toasted the spices to optimize their flavor.
- Use a seasoning base. Since fish sauce is out of the question for a vegan recipe I looked to two ingredients for the umami this soup needs. The first is mushroom seasoning. I’ve been using Trader Joe’s mushroom seasoning blend but recently I found an equally good, if not better alternative at my local Asian market. This Asian mushroom seasoning powder imparts a lot of flavor without the scary amount of sodium that is hard to avoid with most flavor agents (it even has less sodium than the Trader Joe’s version). A little goes a long way and if you can get it locally, it would be much more economical. The second source of flavor is Maggi Seasoning. It’s like soy sauce but more concentrated. I will talk more about Maggi seasoning and why I like it so much on my next What’s in my Pantry segment.
- Protein: You don’t have to include protein for this soup but lightly-fried tofu is a nice addition. You can also use tofu skins or other plant-based meat alternatives to make this veggie pho a well-rounded meal.
- Use a pressure cooker if possible. The pressure cooker extracts all the flavor from the vegetables, spices in half the time as on the stovetop. The broth was done in under an hour and all I had to do was strain the broth and add the vegetables that would be served with the noodles.
I mentioned earlier that this version of pho is light on the spice notes but they are present and recognizable. Instead of allspice, feel free to use cinnamon, cardamom and more star anise than I’ve used here if you want a more forward broth. You will just have to adjust the quantity of vegetables and the shiitake mushrooms (and the mushroom seasoning) to achieve a balance on sweetness and depth. But I encourage you to try my version and use it as a starting point. This vegan pho is flavorful with just a hint of sweetness, light, clean and bright served with the traditional accompaniments. Use your favorite vegetables to serve with the noodles but I recommend not skipping the daikon radish and cabbage. They round out the flavors and are essential to this soup.
My husband is still singing the praises of this new recipe and I’m just singing because third time was a charm. Vegan pho, check.
Vegan Pho (Pho Chay)
This recipe works well on the stovetop but a pressure cooker cuts the time in half. Even meat lovers will enjoy this veggie pho.
For the Broth
- 8 cups water
- 1 large daikon radish, about 6 by 3 inches, peeled and cut in 2 inch pieces
- 2 large carrots, peeled and cut in one inch pieces
- 1 ear corn (or two 2-inch pieces frozen)
- 1 apple, halved
- 10 whole dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 2-inch piece ginger
- 2 onions
- 2 teaspoons whole allspice
- 1 dried star anise
- 3 tablespoons mushroom powder (See Note)
- 1 tablespoon onion powder (not onion salt)
- 1 tablespoon Maggi seasoning (or soy sauce or liquid aminos)
Vegetables and Protein (Use your favorite veggies)
- 1 block tofu, sliced in disks and fried
- daikon radish, sliced in 1/2 inch disks
- 1/2 cabbage
- 1/2 bunch cauliflower, separted in florets
- bok choy
- mushrooms (your favorite)
- mung bean sprouts
- Thai Basil
- lime wedges
- Serrrano or Jalapeño chilies
- 16 ounces pho noodles
Prepare the Broth
This step is optional but helps to add flavor: Heat a cast iron or stainless steel skillet on high and lightly char the carrots, daikon radish, ginger and onions in batches. You can also toast the whole allspice and star anise while you char the vegetables.
Transfer the charred vegetables and spices to your pressure cooker along with the corn, apple, shiitake mushrooms, mushroom powder, Maggi seasoning, onion powder and water. Pressure cook for 20 minutes then quick release. It will take about 30 minutes for the mixture to come to pressure.
Strain the broth into a large bowl then either return to the pressure cooker pot or a pot for the stovetop. Use the keep warm function of your presssure cooker until you're ready to ladle the broth. You can reserve the radish, corn and carrots if you wish or discard them.
Vegetables, Tofu and Noodles
While the broth cooks in the pressure cooker you can prepare the tofu and vegetables. Lightly fry the tofu slices on the stovetop in a tablespoon or two of oil until they start to turn golden. Set aside.
Cook the vegetables until they are crisp-tender. You can either do this in a separate pot of boiling water while the broth cooks or in the broth itself after it's done in the pressure cooker. The daikon radish will need about 10 minutes simmmering in water or the broth while the cabbage, mushrooms, cauliflower, bok choy will need only about one to two minutes, depending on how well-cooked you like your vegetables.
Cook the noodles according to package directions in the same pot of water you cook the vegetables if this is the method you're using. Set aside.
Place a portion of noodles in a bowl followed by the broth and garnishes. Enjoy.
Mushroom Powder: you can find this ingredient at Trader Joe’s or at your local Asian market. It’s relatively low in sodium and adds lots of umami.