I’m a white guy. God am I a friggin white guy! My ethnic background is a mixture of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. So basically anything that is white, dorky, and can’t dance. However, having been a part of a large Vietnamese family for over twenty years now, I am willing to go out on a limb and bet that I have eaten more bowls of pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, than any other white guy out there.
I’ve eaten pho for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner. After long nights out on the town, or as a hangover cure from one of those long nights out on the town. I’ve eaten it at the kitchen table at my mother-in-law’s house, as well as in the homes of my wife’s various brothers, sisters, cousins, and aunts and uncles. I eat it regularly in the restaurants of Southern California’s Little Saigon, but have also had in other Vietnamese enclaves in Houston, Texas, Alexandria, Virginia, and Portland, Oregon. I’ve even eaten it in as faraway places as London, Frankfurt, and Sydney.
And though it is one of the most ubiquitous of Vietnamese dishes, there are still a lot of non-Vietnamese who are intimidated by it due to the self-directed alchemy one has to perform after it is served to you, in order to make the perfect tasting bowl. But don’t despair, I am going to show you step-by-step how to use basic ingredients and correct technique in order to create something special; so that even the most Johnny Winter looking mother fucker can feel comfortable preparing his own bowl of pho.
Of course you might be asking yourself, “why do I want go through all this trouble just to to eat soup?” Because it is good! How good? Let me illustrate….
Nobody likes pain, and one of the ways you can judge how good a particular type of food is, is by how frequently and severely you are willing to burn your mouth when trying to eat it. Pizza immediately comes to mind. We all know when it’s too hot. But its siren smell, wafting towards us while sitting there in the box or on the plate, forces us to pick it up and balance it gingerly on the tips of our near blistering fingertips. Yes, we know it’s too damn hot to put in our mouths; that the warm tip of a traditional triangular slice is just the bait to get us to drop our defenses. And yet we can’t resist taking that full palate bite, the one that causes a mixture of molten cheese and sauce to stick to the roof of ours mouths, scaring it for the rest of the day. But hey, that’s how good pizza is and how much we love it.
And once you try your first bowl of pho, in all of its scalding deliciousness, trust me, you will gladly add it to your “burn list.” So let’s get started.
Timing is crucial
In the same way that the quality of the “mother sauce” in French cooking is key to how a dish will ultimately turn out, the quality of the broth in pho is key to how the final product will taste. If you get pho with subpar broth, no amount of seasoning or fine tuning of ingredients post-service can save the bowl. No matter what you try, it ends up being what I call “repair” pho. Like watching Justin Bieber cover a Ramones song; it’s remotely recognizable, but you know it’s just not the real thing.
Everybody has their own particular recipe for making pho broth, each with their own subtleties in terms of the spices and bone types used, and said recipes never seem to be written down. However, the one overriding factor that determines this magical elixir’s success is time, and top quality pho broth is often simmered for up to twelve hours or more. This necessitates the broth being prepared the night before and then keeping it on a low simmer overnight.
As I mentioned above, you can eat pho for any meal of the day, but for your first time trying it (or trying it correctly) you want arrive at the pho shop between 9:00am and 11:00am. This ensures that the broth you get had sufficient time to cook, allowing all the ingredients to mellow and create their own little harmonious, Age of Aquarius type coexistence.
Arriving at this time also helps you to avoid the scourge of pho shops….cubing. As the day goes on, and more and more bowls of pho are sold, this Satanic ritual which involves adding water to the diminished supply of mother’s broth and then dropping bouillon cubes into the pot, is often attempted as a way to extend the yield. Don’t get “cubed!”
There are a number different types of pho, including chicken (phở gà) and various beef based options such as well-done brisket (phở chín), flank (phở nạm), tendon (phở gân), tripe (phở sách), and fatty brisket (phở gầu). But don’t worry Jethro, I am going to start you off easy and suggest that you go with phở tái, the most Western-friendly version which comes with eye of round steak.
The best option if your server doesn’t speak English (and assuming you don’t speak Vietnamese) is to just point to it on the menu, which will probably have an accompanying photo of the dish. Worst case scenario just ask for “fuh tie” and you should be good to go.
Before your bowl arrives a plate of rau (vegetables) will be placed on your table. These are the garnishes for your soup and will traditionally include basil, mint, bean sprouts, and sliced jalapenos, cut limes, with some variations including cilantro or other vegetables.
Segregate your meat
When your bowl arrives at the table, the first thing you want to do is to “de-clump” it. Sounds lovely doesn’t it, but trust me, this is a key step in preparing your pho. The meat in pho tai comes very thinly sliced and raw, and is meant to be cooked quickly by the heat of the broth, however when they are placed into the bowl they are usually layered on top of one another. If not separated, they will tend to fuse together, creating a still delicious, but rather chewy “clump” of beef.
As soon as your server sets the bowl down, take your chopsticks (or fork whitey) and separate the pieces of beef from one another, placing them around the inside of the rim. Then when finished, take your chopsticks, plunge them into the center of the bowl, under your noodles, and turn them over, in the process dunking the now separated beef slices to the bottom of the bowl where they will finish cooking, clump free.
Now you are going to want to grab three or four nice looking basil leaves from the rau plate, lay them on top of each other, fold in half, and then start tearing small pieces off into the bowl. This step needs to be done early in the process because not unlike when making loose leaf tea the torn basil pieces need some time to steep in the broth in order to fully impart their flavor to the soup. Or at least that’s how my white guy brain sees it.
Bring the heat
One of the greatest contributions to cuisine that has ever come out of Vietnam (by way of Rosemead, California), is Sriracha or “rooster sauce,” that deliciously spicy hot sauce invented by Vietnamese refugee David Tran, and you will find a bottle of it (along with other condiments) on the table of every pho shop.
Sriracha is made from red Jalapeno peppers and provides the perfect type of heat to take your pho up to the next level. How much you add depends on your tolerance levels, but I usually trace the outline of a happy face in the middle of the bowl when I add it, which seems to work perfect and impresses my kids.
You will also want to add a bit of hoisin sauce after the Sriracha. Although technically a Chinese product, it is a must-add for pho. A quick squeeze of the bottle at the edge of your bowl should be sufficient.
Everybody in the pool
Now squeeze the juice of one lime wedge from the rau plate into the bowl, but in my opinion leave out any Jalapeno slices. Add pepper, preferably not the white pepper used in Chinese restaurants for dishes like crab and asparagus soup, but good ole’ ground black pepper. And finally throw in a small handful of the bean sprouts, which by doing last ensures that they stay crisp and crunchy when eaten.
Contrary to popular belief, Nước chấm, the traditional Vietnamese fish sauce is not generally used when preparing a bowl of pho, and is only usually added when the broth is not salty enough and needs some tweaking (a la the “repair” pho mentioned previously).
Now that your bowl is sufficiently garnished all that is needed before you indulge is a quick stir to mix the ingredients.
Doing the Americano
Let me now throw in a bonus tip courtesy of my whiteness.
In most pho shops you will have a wide array of beverage choices to choose from. Some will be on the exotic side like pennywort tea or green grass jelly drink. Others you might recognize, like a hops and barely based drink called “beer.” Now I love beer as much as someone can love a beverage in a non-sexual way, but despite that fact I am going to recommend that you go for the most American of choices to sip with your pho…..an ice cold Coke.
Hear me out. The temperature of the pho you will be eating will be very hot, accentuated by the spice of the Sriracha and the pepper, and the overall flavor profile will lean heavily towards the savory side. After taking in three or four spoonfuls, the heat, and spice, and savory taste of the soup will match perfectly with the cold, the “bite,” and the sweetness from the Coke. And make sure it’s a Coke with a capital “C” because requesting a “coke” can often bring anything from Pepsi to Dr. Pepper. And if that’s the case, well then just go with the beer.
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