leave your inhibitions at the door
The first time I tried pho (pronounced “fuh”), a Vietnamese beef soup with noodles, I was grossed out. I was a college student living in San Jose, Calif., and had ordered some to-go from a restaurant near my apartment. Inside a deep Styrofoam container and swimming in a murky broth were a few beef knuckles and chewy, tough beef tendons–animal parts that fall in the offal (pronounced “awful”) category–so I decided maybe it just wasn’t for me. Funky stuff.
That experience with awful fuh could have turned me off to it forever. I was happy to later discover pho that was of better quality or slightly evolved to suit the American palate, and probably both. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the word “pho” came from the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese “fun” noodle, or if it was a dish influenced by French colonists in Vietnam and named after pot-au-feu (French beef stew). Pho was first sold by Hanoi street vendors less than 100 years ago, so it’s not surprising it would continue to evolve with modern tastes.
With the cold weather, I’ve been getting pho cravings. It’s the ultimate comfort soup, yet avoids the boredom I often find after the first few sips of a soup, thanks to a bright taste explosion of fresh garnishes: basil, cilantro, mint, crunchy bean sprouts, thinly Serrano chilies for a nice kick, and a squeeze of lime. I’ve just started making pho myself in the past year. Isn’t it pretty?
I have a recipe for a quick pho (at the end of this blog), yet there are not a lot of options to get a quick bowl of pho here in Ann Arbor, Mich. There is a place on Liberty St., Tomukun Noodle House, that turns out a decent pho, I hear, but it’s the only Vietnamese option on a menu that also includes udon, ramen, and dohnburi. There is a Pho House opening soon on Washtenaw Ave. in Ypsilanti, according to AnnArbor.com, which holds promise. I looked at the menu of a another local “Vietnamese” restaurant online that, in addition to pho (simply called “beef noodle soup”) there was the ubiquitous Chinese-American “General Tao’s chicken” and that nasty cream cheese abomination known as “crab rangoon.” Quite certain cream cheese is not a staple anywhere on the continent of Asia.
You can throw a stone and hit a first-generation mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose, which has the largest population of Vietnamese in the U.S. (For those unfamiliar, I’d say Thai food is a fairly close cousin.) Before a night of studying–or a night of dancing at the clubs–friends and I would stop for a Vietnamese coffee, super strong espresso served in a French press along with sweetened condensed milk. That would keep you going for hours. (Our version of Red Bull, before the days of Red Bull, and tasted a heck of a lot better, too.)
My favorite Vietnamese dish of all time is Bun Thit Nuong. Oh, is it good, sort of like a hearty warm salad: Thin vermicelli noodles topped with lettuces, fresh herbs, shredded carrot, barbecued pork, chopped peanuts, and dressed with a light yet tasty nuoc cham made with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and garlic. You can also order it with the very filling troika of pork, shrimp, and pieces of deep-fried spring rolls. I found this photo on Wikipedia:
I don’t know that I would have ever had made pho if I hadn’t stumbled across a recipe at epicurious.com for something called “faux pho.” But the recipe needed fixing. First, it called for ramen noodles, which brings back less happy memories of college when I didn’t have much money for real food, and all that stared back from the kitchen cupboard was an ominous stack of 30-cent packages of ramen noodles with powdered broth packets. So I’ve replaced the ramen idea with the traditional rice noodles and—on another occasion with fantastic results—Japanese buckwheat soba noodles, which add a great depth of flavor and whole-grain goodness, turning the dish into sort of a “fusion pho.”
I don’t think it’s quite fair to call my version faux pho, even though I don’t make the broth from scratch. Some might call it Anglo girl pho. I think I’ll just call it . . . fuh without the funk.
Have you tried pho, and do you think you would like this streamlined version? (At least I’m not suggesting it with a side of “crab rangoon.”)
Pho without the Funk
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
½ an onion
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 piece of ginger, about 3” X 1”, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 32 oz. carton of good quality beef broth, such as Pacific. (Pacific also makes a pho soup starter for an even quicker recipe. If using—I did once and it’s not bad—eliminate the star anise and cinnamon in this recipe and cut back on the ginger and garlic.)
2 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tablespoons Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce (if you have some on hand)
2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms, white or a mixture of white, shitake, and/or oyster
1.25-1.5 lbs. flank steak, beef eye round, or sirloin, sliced crosswise 1/8” thick. (A trick for slicing very thin: put in freezer 15 min. before you slice it.)
1 or 2 bunches of green onions, sliced
1 package of rice noodles (rice sticks), or for something a little different and one of my favorites, thin Japanese Soba noodles. Udon noodles would also work. (If you use rice noodles, follow directions—you will probably have to soak in cold water for 20 min. before you cook them.)
Mung bean sprouts, fresh basil, cilantro, and mint, thinly sliced Serrano or jalapeno chilies, and lime wedges
1. Heat large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the star anise and cinnamon and toast, stirring occasionally, until they are slightly brown and smell good. Remove from pot and set aside.
2. Add the oil to pot, and then add onion, cut side down, garlic, and ginger. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is golden and onion charred, 3-4 minutes. Remove two of the garlic cloves, one of the ginger pieces, and half of the onion. Chop onion and mince garlic and ginger and return to pot. Return star anise and cinnamon stick to the pot.
3. Add 1 1/2 cups water, broth, star anise, cinnamon, and fish sauce (optional). Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer until flavors meld, 10 minutes. Add mushrooms; simmer 2 minutes. Add 1 Tablespoon of the chopped green onion. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Meanwhile, cook noodles of your choice in a separate pot (either Soba straight out of package or soaked rice noodles) according to package directions. Drain; divide among bowls.
5. Reheat soup to a low boil. Add beef slices to soup until just cooked through, ONLY about 20 seconds. Don’t make it leather–there should still be some pink in center. Using tongs, transfer beef to bowls.
6. Discard any large pieces of ginger and garlic, star anise, and cinnamon; ladle broth into bowls. Garnish with bean sprouts, herbs, green onion, and sliced chilies, and serve with limes. Or, as is traditional, set out a platter of garnishes and let everyone garnish their own pho.