Vegetarian ‘Chicken’ Phở

Vegetarian 'chicken' phở noodle soup using Beyond Meat Chicken strips

Boston’s weather these past couple of weeks has deliciously hinted that warm spring days are imminent. Some days the temperature has risen into the low 70Fs bringing everyone out in t-shirts and shorts playing tennis or going for bike rides. But with overnight temperatures suddenly dropping to the low 40Fs, we’re still also bundling up in our winter coats, scarves and hats. This cyclical weather brought a stomach bug into our house and our 6 year old was the first to succumb. In Vietnam, when he regained his appetite after an illness a bowl of chicken phở was what he craved. But now he only eats vegetarian.

When I was searching for vegetarian recipes in Vietnam I came across a lot of fabulous, slurp worthy noodle soups. The vegetarian versions of phở I tasted were all based on the beef version, with warming spices of star anise, cinnamon and cloves, and not the comforting, restorative, ginger-infused chicken phở my son preferred.

Charred shallots and ginger on a gas stove

I like to use a small steel cooling rack, specifically for this purpose, of charring ginger and shallots. It’s also handy for eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.

So I set out to prepare a vegetarian broth reminiscent of what he was used to. As I charred the shallots and ginger on the gas stovetop, to mellow and sweeten their flavors, I pulled out some homemade vegetable stock from the freezer and defrosted it. (If you’re going to use a store bought boxed vegetable stock try to use one that is lighter in color and not the orangey-red hue from too much carrots and tomato. Check out The Kitchn’s taste test of vegetable stocks).

Fish sauce is out, so I used some soy sauce and miso to boost the umami factor in the broth. (A small number of vegetarian cooks I met in Vietnam have started to add a touch of miso to their broths for added depth of flavor). The broth and noodles would satisfy my son’s needs but the healthy family members (though we all eventually caught the bug) were going to be eating the phở as our dinner so I needed to consider the rest of the bowl’s contents.

Living back in North America this year I’ve encountered some products in grocery stores that are new to me. I’ve increasingly become curious with the plant based meat alternatives from Beyond Meat. I’ve been impressed by the lightly seasoned Beyond Chicken strips – particularly their flavor, texture and the way they hold up when they are heated. I had a package in the fridge, as I was planning to stir-fry them with lemongrass and chile for dinner one night, so I decided to use them as the chicken garnish. They shred up nicely and require a brief dunk in boiling water to be reheated before being added to the bowl. If you who don’t eat fake meat analogues, or can’t access them because of where you’re living, I’ve given a variation using tofu skin sticks and oyster mushrooms.

Vegetarian (and vegan) 'chicken' phở with shredded tofu skin and mushrooms

Vegetarian ‘chicken’ phở with shredded tofu skin and mushrooms

The garnishes of bean sprouts, thinly sliced spring onions, and herbs (cilantro, Thai basil and mint) are straightforward but I do love the added rich sweet flavor from fried shallots. If you do attempt to make the fried shallots, and I highly recommend that you do, I suggest you make them first or even the day before. They’re highly addictive – you might have to control yourself from nibbling through them before they reach the soup bowl. If you’re unfamiliar with how to make them and want to give them a go David Tanis has a simple recipe for you to follow. It’s worth frying a ½ pound of sliced shallots (about 5-6 of them) for the 1 cup of oil he suggests. Reserve the fragrant oil to drizzle over salads or even into the phở for an extra fatty mouthfeel.

It’s only been during the last decade that some chicken phở vendors in Hanoi started to add some thinly sliced lime leaf as a garnish. I like how the essential oils in the leaves bring a pleasant citrusy fragrance flavor to the dish. If you buy fresh lime leaves (avoid dried lime leaves as they are flavorless) you’ll have more than you need for this recipe. Store the fresh leaves in a ziploc bag in the freezer, for up to a few months, and pull them out when need for this dish or a favorite Thai dish.

Vegetarian ‘Chicken’ Phở
Serves: 4
For the Broth
3 French shallots or 1 small onion, unpeeled
2 inch (5cm) piece of ginger, unpeeled
7 to 8 cups (1.75 to 2 litres) Light vegetable stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon miso (preferably white (shiro) miso, but red or yellow can also be used)
1 teaspoon salt

½ pound (225 g) dried medium or large flat rice noodles
6 ounces (170 g) Beyond Chicken lightly seasoned strips (4 strips per person), pulled
apart into shreds

⅓ to ½ cup crispy shallots (see headnote for recipe link)
4 scallions, white part cut into 4-inch length then thinly sliced lengthwise; green
part thinly sliced crosswise
A handful cilantro sprigs, thinly sliced
1 or 2 Thai basil sprigs, leaves removed and torn
1 or 2 mint sprigs, leaves removed and torn
2 kaffir lime leaves, rib removed and very thinly sliced
A handful of bean sprouts
1 lime, cut into 6 wedges
1 long red chile or two Thai bird’s eye chilies, thinly sliced
Char the shallots and ginger by placing them on the grate of a gas burner set to medium heat. Let the skin of the shallot and ginger char and then rotate or turn over to let other parts become charred. Do this for about 10 minutes or until the shallots and ginger have softened and most of the surface area is charred. (Alternatively, preheat oven to 425F and place the shallots and ginger on a baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes or until browned and softened).

Set aside the shallots and ginger for about 5 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Peel away and discard any of the burnt shallot skins. Use a spoon or a paring knife to scrape off the charred ginger skin. Rinse the shallots and ginger under running water to loosen and remove any small burnt pieces. Cut the ginger into 3 pieces and using the back of a chef’s knife lightly smash each ginger piece. Place the softened shallots and smashed ginger pieces into a 3 quart (3 litre) pot.

Add the vegetable stock, soy sauce, miso into the same pot and bring to a boil. (Add the mushrooms if you’re making the version with tofu skin). Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cover to let the flavors infuse for about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

In a large bowl of warm water, soak the noodles for about 15 to 20 minutes or until soft and pliable. Also bring a large pot of water to a boil.

While the stock is infusing it’s a good time to prepare and assemble any of the garnishes for the noodle bowls. Mix the sliced cilantro, torn basil and mint leaves in a small bowl. Place sliced scallion in a small bowl or plate. Slice the rest of the garnishes (lime leaves, chilies, lime) and set them all aside.

Uncover the broth and use a slotted spoon or Chinese mesh spider to remove (and discard) the shallots and ginger. Raise the heat so that the broth comes to a simmer. (If using tofu skin and mushroom: Scoop out the mushrooms from the broth and set aside).

Drain the noodles and place a quarter of them and a good pinch (a ¼ of the total) of bean sprouts in the basket of a fine mesh strainer. Dunk in the water and untangle the noodles with tongs or chopsticks and cook for about 15 seconds. Remove the strainer from the pot and quickly shake it to let any excess water drip back into the pot. Place the noodles and bean sprouts in a bowl. Repeat for the other 3 portions.

Add the shredded Beyond Meat ‘chicken’ into the basket of the strainer and dunk it into the water for about 10 seconds to warm through. Remove and divide evenly between the four bowls. (If using tofu skin and mushroom: Divide the reserved mushrooms amongst the four bowls. Add the shredded tofu skin into the basket of the strainer and dunk it into the water for about 10 seconds to heat through and divide the tofu skin evenly between the four bowls).

Sprinkle some shredded lime leaf, scallions and herbs over top. Ladle 1 ¾ cups of broth over the noodles and serve with the chili and lime for diners to adjust the seasoning.
VARIATION: Vegetarian phở with shredded tofu skin sticks and oyster mushrooms

If you’re using the tofu skin sticks soak them either the night before (or before you leave for work) as they take some time to rehydrate (though I’ve also given a ‘quick’ rehydrate method).
Tofu skin sticks are made from the skin that forms on the surface of simmering soymilk. The skin is gently pulled off, crumpled together and hung on a stick or rack to dry. You can buy dried tofu skin sticks at Vietnamese or Chinese grocers. In Vietnam, you’ll find them at stalls at fresh food markets that sell dried pantry items like dried beans, rice paper wrappers and soy or fish sauce.

2 tofu skin sticks
1/4 lb (112 g) oyster mushrooms, torn or cut into bite sized pieces (approximately 2 cups)

To Rehydrate the Tofu Skin Sticks

Long soak method
Eight hours before you plan to eat the soup place the tofu sticks in a casserole dish (snap them, trying to keep them in long lengths, if they’re too long for the dish). Fill the casserole dish with hot tap water. Since the tofu skin sticks will float I’ll use a small mesh rack (you can lay a large stainless steel spoon, or something that won’t float, across them) to keep them immersed. The tofu skin sticks will rehydrate overnight (or put them in the water before leaving for work).

Quick Soak Method
If you’ve forgotten to soak them and need to ‘speed’ up the process, turn your oven on to 200F and add the casserole dish (filled with hot water). (Set the timer on your phone or leave a note near the oven - I sometimes will even tape a piece of paper with the time I should check what's in the oven to the oven door- as a reminder that the tofu skin sticks are in the oven).

I’ve found the constant gentle heat quickens the process of the water penetrating the center of the sticks. They should be ready after about 1 to 1 ½ hours. To fully hydrate the tofu skin sticks they need to be gently hydrated which is why a quick boil, say like boiling pasta, does not work (they lose their shape and become slimy).
The tofu skin sticks are fully hydrated when they have turned a lighter color and when you cut through them there is no dried parts at the core of the stick.

To use them in the soup, cut the sticks into 2-inch (5 cm) lengths and either pull them apart into shreds or cut them 3 or 4 times lengthwise. Discard any parts that are tough (this often tends to be the thin curved part that touched the stick or rack when drying). Place the tofu shreds into a bowl or onto a plate and cover with a damp towel and wrap with plastic wrap so that they don’t dry out.

Dried tofu skin or dried bean curd sticks

Here’s a package of dried tofu skin sticks or as they are also called Dried Bean Curd Sticks.

Dried Bean Curd Sticks Rehydrating or Soaking

Use something like a cooling rack or stainless steel cooking spoon to keep the tofu sticks immersed in the water (instead of floating on the surface)

Eating Vegetarian or Vegan in Vietnam

A sign for vegetarian food 'cơm chay' at a small restaurant in the central city of Huế.

A sign for vegetarian food at a small restaurant in the central city of Huế.

If you’re planning a trip (or even a move) to Vietnam don’t let anyone convince you that you’ll have a hard time finding good vegetarian food to eat. Almost all of the vegetarian dishes are vegan friendly, so if you eat vegan you’re also really well covered for food. There are plenty of options but it’s not always apparent to a traveller or non-Vietnamese speaker where to find a vegetarian meal. Early on during my time living and travelling in Vietnam (I lived in Hanoi from 2012-15) I encountered some hurdles finding vegetarian dishes. Initially I was looking in the wrong locations, on the incorrect days or times, or lacked the language skills. I wanted to put together a post, to offer you some guidance in knowing when, where and what signs to look for when searching for Vietnamese vegetarian food and to make the process much easier and tastier on your travels in Vietnam. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my recommendations on vegetarian restaurants and street foods worth sampling in several cities throughout Vietnam.

Before I share that information with you I want to give you a brief background into how I came about looking into the vegetarian food culture of Vietnam. When I’m living in Canada, I’m part of the kitchen team that cooks for the Governor General, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second’s representative in Canada. Like the White House kitchen, we’re required to prepare a variety of foods from daily family meals to creative State dinners that represent Canada’s culinary landscape, tied with the flavors of the visiting nation. During these events one of my roles has been to prepare meals for guests with dietary restrictions, be it vegetarian, gluten-free or serious allergic reactions. With each meal or event, I’ve refined my skills in vegetarian global cuisines, drawing upon the dishes and flavors I’ve encountered while living overseas. When I was living in Hanoi my family started to increasingly eat in a more vegetarian manner, by choice and because our young son decided he no longer wanted to eat meat or seafood (and it’s always great to have more menu options to choose from).

In order to satisfy my culinary curiosities I decided to look more closely into the vegetarian category of Vietnamese cuisine. I was particularly interested in the ingredients Vietnamese cooks use to replace proteins and umami flavors from meat and fish sauce and which cooking techniques they employ to successfully transform an everyday non-vegetarian dish into a delicious vegetarian version. Before learning how to successfully prepare vegetarian versions of Vietnamese classics I first needed to find restaurants, street food vendors, home cooks and monks and nuns to taste their food and to hopefully learn from. This is the first of a series of posts about finding vegetarian/ vegan food in Vietnam. In future posts I’ll share how to find vegetarian street food and some of my favorite restaurants around the country that serve delicious Vietnamese vegetarian dishes.

How to Spot a Vegetarian Restaurant

Vegetarian and vegan restaurants are easier to find in larger cities and communities. The name of the restaurant will end with the word ‘chay’, (meaning vegetarian and pronounced ‘chai’) or ‘cơm chay’ (meaning vegetarian food) such as Nhà Hàng Cơm Chay (vegetarian restaurant). Vegetarian restaurants and street food options are very common in the southern cities of Sài Gòn and Tây Ninh, the centre of the Cao Đài religion, and throughout the Mekong delta in Cần Thơ and Mỹ Tho. The central cities of Huế and Da Nang also have plenty of choices while Hà Nội is slowly experiencing an increase in vegetarian restaurants. As you move north from Hà Nội into the countryside and hills near the Chinese border, the options are more limited.

Photo of Hum Vegetarian restaurant in Saigon

‘Nhà Hàng Chay’ means vegetarian restaurant. This is a great restaurant, Hum, in Saigon.

A sign for a vegetarian restaurant in Vietnam. 'Quán Ăn' is also another name for restaurant or diner in Vietnamese. It's more commonly used in the south and center of the country.

‘Quán Ăn’ is also another name for restaurant or diner in Vietnamese. It’s more commonly used in the south and center of the country.

Monks and nuns eat their main meal of the day around 10:30 to 11:00am. If you find yourself at a pagoda around this time, you may receive an invitation to dine with other lay Buddhists.

How to Order in Restaurants

Restaurants that cater to tourists are usually aware of that foreign vegetarians do not eat meat and seafood but are open to eating dishes prepared with eggs and dairy. (If you follow a vegan diet try to explain to the server what ingredients you do not eat). They will have several vegetarian choices on their menu. When dining in a general restaurant that doesn’t have an English menu look for a section of vegetarian dishes called ‘món chay’.

The first couple of times you leaf through a menu in a vegetarian restaurant you may think you’ve been given an incorrect menu based on the names, translated from Vietnamese to English, of some of the dishes. It is common that the English menu is translated literally. Don’t worry. Vegetarian dishes in Vietnam are generally replicas of meat and seafood dishes and are often called by their traditional name in Vietnamese but with the word ‘chay’ added to the end of it.

If at lunchtime, and sometimes dinner, you see a handful of people crowded around a glass display case filled with platters, buffet style, of freshly prepared dishes you’ve happened upon a Vietnamese style diner. These basic restaurants, roughly translated as commoner’s rice (cơm bính dân) or broken rice (cơm tấm), have no menu. I’ve nicknamed them ‘point and eat’ restaurants since you indicate by pointing, particularly if you are not familiar with the names of the dishes or with the Vietnamese language, to the cook or, server as to which dishes you would like to order. They scoop some rice on the center of a plate and surround it with spoonfuls of the dishes you selected. You then find an empty seat at a communal table to consume your meal. These types of restaurants are popular with blue collar and office workers as it provides them a cheap full meal of homestyle comfort dishes. Alongside the meat and seafood dishes common vegetarian dishes routinely prepared are tofu in tomato sauce, stir-fried water spinach or chayote tendrils with garlic, sautéed seasonal vegetables, grilled eggplant and a light vegetable broth again with seasonal vegetables. Depending on the cooks or clientele, some of these dishes may contain a splash of fish sauce, while some cooks may use soy sauce. Although empty platters are regularly refilled I like to go, around 11 am, when the food is fresher and still warm.

Sign for a casual Vietnamese eatery called Com Binh Dan

Sign for a ‘cơm bính dân’, a Vietnamese style diner. Also look for signs that read ‘cơm tấm’ (meaning commoner’s rice or broken rice). If the world ‘chay’ follows these words on these signs the restaurant is fully vegetarian.

Vegetarian 'broken rice' restaurant sign in Saigon.

Vegetarian ‘broken rice’ restaurant sign in Saigon.

Don’t be alarmed when you happen upon a vegetarian version (called cơm bính dân chay) where the dishes look remarkably like meat and seafood. Vegetarian cooks pride themselves in preparing food that looks and tastes like the non-vegetarian versions, so you’ll be fine.

These mock meat and seafood dishes are made with tofu and tofu skin, but sometimes are prepared using gluten, seitan (mì căn), or textured vegetable protein (TVP). The use of these non-tofu based meat substitutes is fairly frequent, particularly as you move to the northern part of the country. Inventive vegetarian cooks in the center and south will also transform produce such as young jackfruit, banana flowers, and taro root into delightful dishes.

When, Where and What to Buy from Street Vendors

Fabulously flavored dishes are sold on the streets or in markets in several ways. No matter what form the food stall is typically each vendor specializes in cooking and selling one dish. A common site is that of vendor, bamboo pole slung over her shoulder with a bamboo basket balanced on either end of the pole, called đòn gánh tre, each containing her ingredients and cooking tools. Each day she sets up at the same sidewalk location or continuously roams around a neighborhood only stopping to finish the assembly of her dish when hailed by a hungry passerby. There’s another type of street food vendor who serves from a basic outdoor kitchen consisting of just a burner or two or from a small cart, located on the sidewalk in front of their home. They set up a few knee high plastic tables and basic stools, just a foot from the ground making it feel like you’re clumsily sitting on children’s furniture at a make believe tea party, around their rudimentary kitchen. The seating provides just enough comfort for the time needed for you to consume your meal and to prevent any long term lingering.

Vegetarian mobile food vendor's ingredients for fresh noodle bowl with spring rolls and thin rice crepes (bánh cuốn).

Vegetarian mobile food vendor’s ingredients for fresh noodle bowl with spring rolls and thin rice crepes (bánh cuốn) (batter is in the blue pitchers).

Many of these makeshift roadside vendors, selling either regional noodle soups or bánh mì sandwiches, operate in the mornings starting as early as 5:30 am and closing up around 10 am. Stalls in the rustic market food courts often remain open for lunch as well. Vegetarian dishes at street food vendors or in stalls in market food courts are more commonly found in the south and center of the country. Often there may be a permanent vegetarian stall or two in a market food court, or a street food vendor, around a pagoda. In the north, such as in Hanoi, it is a rarity.

Look at the Moon

If you’re in town on the 1st or 15th of each lunar month, you’re in luck. Apart from full-time vegetarians or vegans, most people who seriously practice Buddhism follow a periodic vegetarian diet on those days. Some believers may eat vegetarian two more days, on the 14th and 30th. On these auspicious days, around the new and full moon, street food vendors and some of the cơm bính dân restaurants serve vegetarian versions of popular dishes. At food courts of fresh food markets, scour the signs of the prepared food vendors or those of the street food vendors surrounding the larger pagodas. Vendors offering a vegetarian version of a dish like phở or bánh mì will display a temporary sign ending with the word chay, such as phở chay or bánh mì chay.

Vegetarian Bánh Mì Sandwich vendor stall

Vegetarian Bánh Mì Sandwich vendor stall. Normally she sells meat versions but on this day she is selling vegetarian versions. You can tell by the Bánh Mì Chay sign that she’s taped up on the top left corner. Many other street food vendors will add these temporary signs on half or full moon days.

It’s worth paying attention to the lunar calendar. Several times I’ve returned the day after the full moon for a second tasting of a memorable vegetarian dish, only to discover the street vendor is back to preparing a full-fledged meat or seafood version. Similarly, some regular vegetarian restaurants close the day following a half or full moon to give their staff a break from the previous few days hard work of preparing for a busy onslaught of hungry, temporary vegetarian, diners. On the auspicious lunar calendar days an enterprising prepared food market vendor may offer a dish or two in the early evenings to catch people in search of a vegetarian dish for dinner.


If You Have Gluten or Gluten Insensitivities

Although the vast majority of the Vietnamese dishes are gluten free if you are sensitive to gluten you’ll still need to watch out for the inclusion of several products used in the Vietnamese vegetarian pantry. Dishes where one of the main ingredients is wheat tend to have the word bột mì or mỳ in the name. Other off-limits foods are gluten or seitan (mì căn) used in preparing mock meat dishes, wheat noodles such as Chinese egg noodles (mì/ mỳ trứng), macaroni noodles (nui) and bread (bánh mì). Unlike the US, the majority of soy sauce used on the streets, in cheaper restaurants, and in homes is not made with wheat. However, it’s always best to double check, as restaurants and hotels that cater to tourists may use imported soy sauce that contains wheat. I highly recommend you check out my friend Jodi’s Gluten Free Travel Guides that include her experiences eating her way around Vietnam.

Handy Vietnamese Phrases

When you don’t see any vegetarian options and want to ask the kitchen to prepare menu items in a modified manner, these Vietnamese phrases are extremely useful:

I am/ eat vegetarian                 Tôi ăn chay.

I don’t eat meat, fish or seafood         Tôi không ăn thịt/cá/ hải sản.

I eat egg.                      Tôi ăn trưng.


Does this dish contain ______________?

Món ăn này có (insert ingredient name) không?


Can you cook this dish using (soy sauce)? (Instead of fish sauce)

Bạn có thế nấu món ăn này vui (Nước tương/ xì dầu)đước không?


Can you cook this dish without …

Bạn có thế nấu món ăn này không (insert word from below)…?

Meat               Thịt

Chicken           Thịt gà

Beef                 Thịt bò

Pork                Thịt heo

Seafood           Hải sản

Fish                 Cá

Fish sauce       Nước mắm

Soy sauce        Nước tương/ xì dầu

Wheat flour     Bột mì