I’ve spent the last 7 years of my life away from Newfoundland exploring different kinds of foods. In my undergrad, once a month I’d take myself out to a (cheap) restaurant as an escape from residence meals. So, of course, it had to be the best restaurant I could find for the money. I’d put a few ours of research into choosing the type of restaurant (always a different kind of cuisine – Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian, Persian, etc.) and then the best restaurant within that type. Mostly this was based on NowToronto’s listings of the “Best of the City” annual awards.
When I discovered that one of the best Vietnamese places was right next to the University where I spent all my time, it was an easy decision to go try some noodle soup. I remember sitting by myself in this restaurant, chopstick newbie that I was, wondering what to do with that pile of basil or mint and bean sprouts on the side plate. What could the different sauces be for? Do I put them into the soup? Or are they even for the soup? Maybe they’re only for plated dishes? Then do I use a spoon to eat the soup? And why won’t those noodles get into my mouth?
Then my least favourite question that came about 2 hours later: Why do I have a headache??
What I’ve learned (and could still be completely wrong about):
1. You eat the noodles with the chopsticks and then use a spoon for the broth.
2. You add the bean sprouts and green herbs to the soup little by little so they don’t lose their crunch and you only use what you want.
3. You can combine the hot red sauce and hoisin on the side in a dish instead of pouring it directly into the soup. That way you won’t destroy the natural flavour of the carefully made (hopefully) broth. Then you can drag the noodles into the sauce before stuffing them into your mouth. This is a very messy process that takes a lot of chopstick dexterity.
4. The headache is from the MSG that is either added because the broth isn’t naturally flavourful enough or because it’s actually kind of traditional in a lot of Vietnamese pho’ places to add it. Lots of mothers in Vietnamese kitchens do it and lots of Vietnamese grew up with it.
…but lots of North Americans eat canned condensed soups, or worse: “meat” fried in some kind of hydrogenated oil (aka McDonalds) and call it dinner. And we’ve been doing it for a long time now. I’d even go as far as to call it a tradition.
So I had to figure out how pho’ noodle soup could be made without MSG, because at some point it was. Pho’ existed a long time before giant restaurant chains and Campbell’s. That’s basically how my interest in cooking came about. I wanted to know how something was made. I’d taste it, be blown away, and wonder. Curiosity.
I thought chicken pho’ ga was just noodle soup. As in you could take a chicken broth, add some rice noodles, some green onions, some bean sprouts, some shredded chicken, and serve it with some hot sauce and hoisin and voila, Vietnamese! But no, I was very, very wrong. Pho’ ga requires hours of simmering. Because it’s a lighter, sweeter flavour than the beef version of the soup, I think it’s even harder to get right. And I didn’t. Not the first time, anyway. the next day, however, it was stupendous.
Here’s the best recipe ever from VietWorldKitchens. Of course, I didn’t stick to that.
I ran out of chickens, so I just used the carcass. I figured it wasn’t going to be the best broth ever anyway.
Then back to a boil with the flavourings: the onion, ginger, herbs, soy sauce, fish sauce, cinnamon, cloves, coriander (the last two toasted), and even a little star anise because I like more flavour, especially when I was planning to get less from the chicken. There’s also the key ingredient of “rock sugar”. Like I was going to find that in Newfoundland…So I just used brown sugar and dates for body:
simmer for hours and hours…
Reduce, reduce, reduce.
Hours later, soften the rice stick noodles, strain them, and put them in individual bowls. Have the garnishes and sauces ready and everything set on the table. I dind’t wait hours. I waited about 40 minutes, then poured some broth and vegetables over the noodles and dug in. As we were eating, though, I let the broth keep cooking. So what we ate that night was kind of watery, but the next day it was perfect. The water had reduced down and the sweetness was perfect. With a little lime on the side, some crunchy bean sprouts, just enough hot sauce for the noodles, and a good balance of cloves, cinnamon, and star anise, I enjoyed my first relatively successful home-made pho.