by Malia Kirby, L.Ac.
Those who know me well know that, without a doubt, there is one food on the planet that holds an especially dear place in my heart, and that dish, my friends, is pho. To fully understand what pho is and how to make a good bowl of it, one must first understand its history and evolution. Believe it or not, pho, the "National dish of Vietnam," may not actually be Vietnamese in origin. Pho first made its appearance in Northern Vietnam around Hanoi during the unification of the country under French rule in the late 1800s, and it is believed by culinary experts in Vietnamese cuisine that the noodle dish has its origins in the French peasant dish pot-au-feu ("pot on the fire"), even lending a corrupted version of its name, switching from "feu" to "pho." When comparing and contrasting their ingredients, we see even more similarities: a crystal-clear consommé made with marrow-filled bones and beefy knuckles, onions studded with cloves, whatever local vegetables and spices are handy, and the leftover meats the upper-class and royalty wouldn't deign to eat. We're talking offal, the tough cuts, and anything that could possibly make your children and certain adults scream, "Eeewwww!" on sight.
As the dish progressed through South Vietnam and Saigon, more spices and rock sugar were added as well as herbs including Thai basil, saw tooth coriander, cilantro, & mint, mung bean sprouts, Siracha, and hoisin. Once the dish left Vietnam and into other countries, the Chinese influenced the dish by switching out the wheat-based noodles for rice noodles and adding spices of their own including those we TCM geeks know as Yi Tang (malt sugar), Xiao Hui Xiang (fennel seed), and Gan Cao (licorice). Further additions from there include the use of shrimp, fish, pork, New World vegetables and spices, and even more sugar. Most of what we see here in the States is considered Saigon pho, rather than pho bac, known as Hanoi pho or Northern pho.
That's the glorious thing about the various peasant foods of the world that we should never forget. It's never the ingredients you place in it that make the dish good. If that were the case, most of the world's phenomenally great foods never would have come to be since few of us can claim royal blood (and while we're at it, the dishes served to royalty weren't ever that great to begin with). It's the techniques that make those incredibly poor cuts into something so amazingly good you keep returning for more like an addict seeking out their next fix.
All that aside, yes, you can make pho at home, but I'm going to state here and now that I'd much rather head down to a section of South Federal, known in certain circles as Little Saigon, for a bowl. It's not terribly difficult, but you really do need to make it in large quantities, you will need a LOT of time on your hands to do it justice, and you will need to baby your broth while it cooks, otherwise the grease and impurities will settle back into the liquid, affecting the big, beefy flavor, perfect melding of spice, and crystalline-clear broth that is required for quality pho. Be forewarned, it can be an all-day ordeal. Pho IS all about the broth, after all. To find the best, there's one man in the world I'll consult, and that's Chef Didier Corlou. Yes, he's a Frenchman. He also lived in Hanoi for 19+ years and is considered the world's authority on pho and Vietnamese cuisine, not to mention, he's also a Master Chef (a certification that many apply for and fail – American certifications typically only add one or two chefs to the certification list per year if any at all). The man knows what he's doing and how to do it well, where others are...simply mediocre while others are downright poor and not really worth eating. The following is what I've learned from his writings as well as suggestions from other various Vietnamese culinary experts (no, I don't claim my version is either Hanoi or Saigon pho--just pho).
His original recipe can be found online here: http://vietworldkitchen.typepad.com/blog/2008/10/pho-by-chef-didier-corlou.html
Pho Bo at Home
5 lbs marrow bones (oxtail, leg bones, & knuckles are good; avoid necks)
1 1/2 gallons water
1-2 lb beef rump or shoulder
1/2-1 lb beef outside flank (optional, sliced with the grain)
1 beef filet (optional, for rare cuts added at the end to cook in the broth)
1/4 lb beef tendon (optional)
1/4 lb book tripe (optional, washed & thinly sliced)
2 medium onions
1 small rhizome ginger, 3-4" long (older is better than fresh, but not dried)
1 piece star anise
1 cinnamon stick, 1" long
1 black cardamom pod (use this if you can find it)
5-6 whole cloves (only use if not using black cardamom)
1 lb rice sticks (1/4" wide)
1/2 lb daikon, peeled and cut into 4" pieces
3-4 limes, sliced 1/2" thick
fish sauce, to taste
2-3 bunches scallions, thinly sliced and keeping the white portions
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 bunch fresh spearmint
1 bunch fresh sawtooth coriander
1 bunch fresh Thai basil
3-4 c mung bean sprouts
3-4 hot chiles, sliced
Prepare grill for medium-high heat and clean. Place the onions and the ginger on the cooking grate, letting the skins burn, turning periodically for 15-20 minutes. Let cool. Remove the charred onion and ginger skins, discarding any blackened portions. Set aside.
Heat a 10" skillet over medium-low and toast the star anise, cinnamon, black cardamom (if using), and the cloves (if not using the black cardamom) until fragrant. Remove from heat, then lightly crush using the flat side of a chef's knife or a mortar and pestle. Wrap the spices in a double-layer of cheesecloth tied with a generous length of kitchen twine. Set aside.
Wash the bones, allowing them to drain on paper towels. Place the bones in a large stockpot, covering them completely with water. Bring to a boil on high heat, continuing to boil at military flame for 2-3 minutes. Drain and rinse the bones with warm water. Scrub and rinse the stockpot to remove any residue.
Return the bones to the pot, adding the 1 1/2 gallons water. Heat to boiling, then skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Add the sachet d'espice, tying the end of the kitchen twine to one handle of the stockpot for easier removal, onions, ginger, parsnip, daikon, and the beef rump/shoulder. Season lightly with fish sauce, then reduce heat to just barely simmer (movement of the liquid should be just barely perceptible) for 1 hour, skimming off any scum or foam that rises to the surface. If using tendon and outside flank, add these to the broth at this time.
Continue to barely simmer the stock for 2 more hours, continuing to skim off any scum or foam rising to the surface, and removing the sachet d'espice when the stock becomes fragrant. Add the white portions of the scallions with 20-30 minutes of the cook time remaining. Remove the bones and the meat, allowing the meat to drain, and discard the onion, ginger, parsnip, and daikon solids, keeping the poached white scallion parts. Keep the stock simmering and check for seasoning. Add more fish sauce, salt, or pepper, if needed. Increase heat to medium to ensure stock is boiling hot.
Thinly slice the rump/shoulder, followed by the filet. Set aside.
Blanch the rice sticks in boiling water for 2-3 seconds, drain. Divide among bowls, then top with sliced beef rump/shoulder, flank, tendon, tripe, filet, scallion slices, and poached scallion white portions. Ladle boiling stock into bowls. Serve immediately with cilantro, spearmint, sawtooth coriander, Thai basil, lime slices, mung bean sprouts, hot chile slices, Siracha, and hoisin sauce on the side.
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