Some travellers buy small mementos to remind them of a wonderful time spent in an exotic location. A love of food takes home the culinary knowledge of a culture. It is truly the gift that gives on giving!
Pho is the king of soups! Strange how pedestrian ingredients like beef stock, slivers of raw beef, finely sliced onion, rice noodles, bean sprouts, spring onions and Thai basil marry up spectacularly to dish up one of world cuisine’s ultimate taste sensations. But then again, perhaps it’s not so strange considering…
The broth is an artistic blend of ageless beef stock simmered with pungent spices and charred onion to produce a rich, smooth consistency with only a hint of fat globules shining on the surface. Add to that wafer-thin slices of good quality raw beef, the liquorice taste of Thai basil, the freshness of coriander leaves, fiery Sriracha sauce, and you have a symphony of perfectly blended flavours that elevates any meal into a gourmet sensation!
Pho is known by various names depending on the meat used. Pho Tai is served with raw beef, Pho Bo is boiled beef and Pho Ga is a chicken noodle soup. In Vietnam, regional variations exist in noodle width, choice of herbs and sweetness of the broth.
Eating Pho is a sociable experience
Typically, Pho Tai will be served in a deep bowl filled with the rich broth, rice noodles and sliced onion, topped with thin slices of red meat. The broth is served piping hot and cooks the meat within seconds’ from being served.
Eating Pho is a sociable experience. Diners add fresh ingredients, primarily Thai basil, bean sprouts, onion, spring onion, chilli and coriander leaves along with sauces such as Sriracha and Hoisin, to the diner’s own preferences.
Making the stock is the most difficult part of home-cooked Pho Tai. Once the stock is ready, the dish assembles within minutes. This is the recipe I follow:
2 onions, halved
10cm raw ginger, halved
2.75kg of beef bones (see method)
6.8lt of water
¼ cup fish sauce (Nuoc Mam)
¾ T salt
28g brown sugar
Mesh bag containing 1T coriander seeds, 1T fennel seeds, 5 whole star anise, 1 cardamom pod, 1 cinnamon stick and 6 whole cloves
Use good quality beef bones, some with a bit of meat still attached. Include a portion of leg bones containing rich marrow. Boil the bones in water for between 6 and 10 minutes and discard the water. Wash off the bones. This procedure will remove a lot of scum that will otherwise float to the top of the broth.
At the same time, char the onion and ginger.
Dry roast the coriander, fennel, star anise, cardamom pod, cinnamon stick and cloves only for as long as it takes to release a wonderful aroma. Take off heat and place in mesh bag.
Fill a pot with 6.8lt of water, adding the bones and all other stock ingredients. Simmer uncovered for about 1.5 hours.
Scoop out any scum that drifts to the top. Taste the stock and add fish sauce and sugar to balance out the flavours.
Continue to simmer for another 1.5hrs.
Take broth off heat and strain. If there’s too much oil in the broth, refrigerate overnight and easily scoop congealed fat off the top the following day.
Rice noodles (flat not round – round noodles are used in Bun Bo Hue)
350g sirloin or rump steak, very thinly sliced
Handfuls of fresh Thai basil, coriander leaf, mint and bean sprouts
2 chillies, sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges
Hoisin sauce (optional)
Part-freeze the steak, which makes it easier to cut into wafer-thin slices.
Cook the noodles (follow package instructions, but fresh noodles are usually only blanched in boiling water for two to four minutes).
Arrange the Thai basil, coriander, mint and bean sprouts on a single platter.
Place the sliced chillies, Sriracha and Hoisin in separate small bowls.
Boil broth prior to dishing up. Place rice noodles, sliced onion and slivers of raw beef into soup bowls. Ladle boiling soup into bowls, which will cook the raw meat. Serve immediately.
Guests will add the Thai basil, coriander leaf, mint, lime juice and bean sprouts to their beef noodle soup from the central platter, according to taste. The fresh leaves are commonly torn and added to the soup. Hoisin sauce adds an oriental sweet barbecue taste, while Sriracha and chilli can be added to boost spiciness.
What makes this soup such an outstanding culinary achievement is the perfect marriage of flavours and the economy of ingredients. Thank you Vietnam for coming into my home!
Check out the Vietnam destination guide
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