In a Nutshell (and do not use nutshells when making Pho):
Pho—more or less pronounced “fuh”—is the traditional noodle soup of Vietnam. I won’t go into detail about the history of the dish, because I’d inevitably get it wrong. Nor will I get into flowery descriptions of its complexity or simplicity or the way it “approaches the palette”. Pho is not unfamiliar to most Westerners who live in areas with Vietnamese people. Which is pretty much anywhere.
Generally, Pho consists of four things: the broth, the noodles, the meat, and the vegetables. Sounds pretty simple. But what makes Pho so special is the way the different ingredients are added at different times during the process. Each element tends to retain its unique qualities. And that’s what makes Pho awesome.
It’s All About The Broth:
For my first try at the Pho broth, I did some ad-hocking. I had prepared a basic chicken broth from bones and parts left over from a previous meal, which I combined with more water and “sour crab stock” that I found at a local market. With a little salt, this made for a soup that honestly could have stood on it’s own. But having talked to a few people around town, I added two components that pushed it over the edge: charred onion and charred ginger. Not having an oven here, I roasted a few chunks of onion and ginger over an open flame, and when they were fully blackened, I threw them in the pot to boil slowly. Maybe it made the broth more authentic, maybe it just made me feel more hardcore. Either way, it added a degree of deliciousness.
After about an hour of boiling this down, I strained the liquid, threw away the solids, and put it back on the fire. Then I threw in about a half a pound of shrimp. Low heat, another 20 minutes or so, and the soup was ready to go, complete with meat.
The Noodle Issue:
In my limited experience in SE Asian markets, I have found that there are 7 million varieties of noodles. Typically, Pho is made with rice noodles, but I opted for dried egg noodles that had been made with carrots and cabbage for color variety. The reason I did this was because I have a particularly picky four-year-old food critic to please, and frankly… having the choice of different colored noodles just makes freaking sense. For the Pho purists still reading this, you can now comfortably take your leave and go surf other cooking sites. But as this was my first attempt at Pho, and because it’s just the way I cook, I can assure you that moving forward, I will try any and every kind of noodle I find.
This is what makes Pho so wonderful. In a typical Vietnamese restaurant, you will be served a bowl of piping hot broth and meat, alongside another bowl of veggies and herbs. Sometimes the meat is served raw on the side, the idea being that it will sufficiently cook within the soup. The green stuff might consist of anything from whole basil leaves to stalks of cilantro. And of course, bean sprouts. You add what you want, however much you want, to the soup.
These ingredients are both cooked and not cooked. Had they been boiled down in the broth, they would certainly have affected the flavor of the soup. But the idea with Pho is to add the greens and herbs at the last minute, so that they add flavor the broth, but they also retain their own characteristics when it’s time to eat. Imagine the difference between basil that’s cooked into a pesto sauce versus basil served fresh with mozzarella and tomatoes. This is somewhere in between.
For mine, I included fresh basil, cilantro, mint, been sprouts, green onions and a couple other whole herbs that I have no idea what are. They smelled good.
Last But Not Least—The Spice:
I have yet to eat anywhere in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, (or the continents of Africa and South America) and not be offered a side of fire. My current favorite condiment is the combination of vinegar, soy sauce and raw chiles. If it gets too hot, fresh squeezed lime takes the edge off and adds a bit of refreshment. I like a lot of lime, but I also like a meal to clear the sinuses, so I just add a lot of everything. Which just makes sense for a dish like Pho. Again, uniquely it’s own thing, but entirely customizable.
The Perfect Meal:
Yum yum yum. Suffice it to say, the reviews were outstanding. Even Siena Kaya—a connoisseur of chicken nuggets and peas—said, “Daddy, this is the bestest dinner ever.” While I might disagree with her on that, I’ll take it tonight.
Though I have promised my family that I won’t, I would be content to eat Pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of my life, save only for those opportunities to discover new dishes from around the world. There are infinite varieties of this stuff to suit your mood. Pho can be a filling warm-up on a rainy day, serve as a refreshing alternative to the fried, baked, and sauce-laden foods we’re so accustomed to in the West, soothe a hangover, inspire you to drink more, and perhaps save the world. I would vote for Pho for president, or prime minister or whatever. Once again, apologies to the purists, and I encourage you all to seek this dish out. Or be hardcore like me and prepare some Pho on your own!