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Angie Hong's pho


Sydney restaurateur and doyenne of Vietnamese cooking Angie Hong shares the secrets to making the deeply comforting classic noodle soup.

You'll need

1 kg beef marrow bones, cut into 3 pieces 1 kg beef short ribs 1 kg oxtail cut into 2cm pieces 800 gm beef brisket 2 onions, halved 150 gm piece ginger, halved through the centre 10 star anise 4-5 cinnamon quills 5 cardamon pods 5 cloves 1½ tbsp coriander seeds 2 tbsp caster or rock sugar, to taste 100 ml fish sauce, or to taste, plus extra to serve 800 gm piece of beef rump Spring onions, thinly sliced white onion, thinly sliced coriander, to season Bean sprouts, Thai basil, mint, sawtooth coriander (see note), lemon or lime cheeks, and thinly sliced chillies, to serve 1 kg fresh banh pho (flat rice noodles) or 800gm dried pad Thai noodles, blanched Hoisin and chilli sauces, for dipping

Method

  • 01
  • Rinse marrow bones, short ribs, oxtail and brisket (or chicken and chicken carcasses for pho ga) under cold running water, then carefully add them to a stockpot or large saucepan of boiling water. Return to the boil, then strain (discard water) rinse meat and bones under cold running water.
  • 02
  • Preheat a heavy-based frying pan and grill onions and ginger until charred (5-7 minutes).
  • 03
  • Dry-roast spices until fragrant (5 minutes), then tie in a piece of muslin.
  • 04
  • Bring 7.5 litres water to the boil in a large saucepan or stockpot, add meat and bones (or chicken and carcasses; see note), onion and ginger, then season with sugar and 2 tbsp salt. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer, skimming often, until well flavoured, transferring brisket to refrigerator after 1 hour of cooking (2½-3 hours or longer for deeper flavour). Add spices and stand to infuse (1 hour).
  • 05
  • Remove meat and bones from stock (discard ribs) and plunge in cold water to cool, then refrigerate until required. Thinly slice brisket across the grain and set aside. Scoop out bone marrow and break oxtail meat into small pieces and reserve to serve.
  • 06
  • Strain broth then return 6 litres (freeze remaining) and the ginger and spice bag to a clean saucepan, add fish sauce, bring to the boil, then simmer over low heat until ready to serve.
  • 07
  • Thinly slice beef rump, and thinly slice spring onion tops and cut white ends into small batons.
  • 08
  • Arrange bean sprouts, herbs, lime or lemon cheeks, and sliced chillies on a plate.
  • 09
  • Divide noodles among bowls then, working with a portion at a time, blanch by plunging into boiling water (5 seconds), then return to bowls. Top with sliced beef, spring onion, white onion and coriander, ladle in hot broth and stir. Serve hot with oxtail meat, bone marrow, bean sprouts, herbs, lemon or lime cheeks, chillies and sauces.

Most culinary historians believe that pho, the ever-popular Vietnamese beef or chicken noodle soup, originated in North Vietnam, in Hanoi, then travelled to the South around 1954 with the northerners who fled the Communist regime and then set up pho restaurants, mainly in Saigon.

There's a significant difference in climate between North and South Vietnam - the North has winter, so pho was traditionally a breakfast dish, and most of the pho street stalls in Hanoi would pack up and call it a day around 10am, reappearing the next day around 6am.

Growing up in Saigon during the '60s, I would go with my father on his Lambretta scooter to eat pho ga (chicken) at a restaurant called Pho Ga Binh Minh (meaning sunrise) on Ky Dong Street. As this only happened once in a while, I was full of excitement and anticipation for this special treat - pho then was way more expensive than the usual breakfast of sticky rice, boiled sweet potatoes and cassava, or baguette and sweetened condensed milk.

As soon as we descended the Truong Minh Giang Bridge, I could detect the aroma tinged with ginger and onion and chicken fat in the early morning air. My father would order a drip-filter coffee and a bowl of pho ga, a bowl of just noodles and broth for me (he would transfer some of the glistening slivers of chicken thigh meat with the fatty yellow skin from his bowl to mine) and a plateful of bean sprouts and fresh herbs, lime cheeks and chilli on the table. Slowly sipping the soup from the spoon, slurping the strands of noodle, squeezing in some lime, adding chilli, bean sprouts and torn herbs while looking at that inviting cooked chicken hanging above a large simmering pot of broth, I wished I could eat pho for every meal of the day, or that my bowl would miraculously refill itself endlessly.

Pho is not tricky to make. All you need is a large stockpot, beef bones for pho bo (beef), or a whole free-range chicken and carcasses for pho ga, and fresh ginger, onions, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander seeds and flat rice noodles, fresh or dried. You can even make the noodles yourself using a combination of rice and tapioca flours. It's best to make pho broth in large quantities and freeze any extra for later use. Chicken broth is a lot faster to make and involves fewer spices.

To serve pho you need a deep bowl into which a handful of blanched noodles is placed then topped with paper-thin slices of raw beef, or slices of poached chicken with the skin on, chopped spring onion and coriander, plus thinly sliced onion. The boiling-hot, aromatic broth is then ladled into the bowl and it's stirred in a circular motion to partly cook the beef and garnishes.

The next step is to season it to your liking, squeezing in lemon or lime, then to add bean sprouts, sliced chilli and fresh herbs: Thai basil, mint, sawtooth coriander, rice paddy herb and chilli to your taste. Hoisin and chilli sauces are essential for dipping. Some people add both sauces to the noodles and mix it through; others like to combine their sliced chilli, lemon juice, chilli sauce and fish sauce in a separate dish in place of hoisin for a customised dipping sauce. Then all you need is a pair of chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon to eat it.

Eating pho is a ritual art. First you submerge the toppings, then fill the spoon with noodles, meat, garnishes and broth, and taste - this is how one can judge the true flavour and the quality of the pho - then adjust the seasoning to your taste.

Before 1975, hardly anyone in South Vietnam would make pho at home since pho bo and pho ga could be found at local restaurants everywhere. Pho restaurants also popped up outside Vietnam, mainly in France, in the '50s and '60s, run by those who fled the Communist regime or the Ngo Dinh Diem presidency. Displaced Vietnamese who called many different countries home after 1975 have brought pho to global attention.

In countries such as America, Canada and Australia, going to pho restaurants for breakfast every day is almost impossible, unless you live near Vietnamese-populated areas, so most people would try to make pho at home, thus giving rise to pho seasoning cubes, paste sachets and packets of mixed pho spices in Asian groceries.

My sister and her husband have settled in Loomis, a semi-rural area near Sacramento, California. They raise chickens, grow limes, lemons, green onions, herbs, ginger and chilli, and even germinate their own bean sprouts from mung beans to make proper pho ga. And I can attest that my brother-in-law, Cuong Vu, makes the best pho (both ga and bo) I've ever tasted. He kindly gave me the recipes for the broth, which is the essential part of a good bowl of pho.


At A Glance

  • Serves 6 - 8 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 6 - 8 people

Additional Notes

For chicken pho, omit the cinnamon and cardamom. In step four cool the whole chicken in a bath of iced water after cooking for 30 minutes, drain and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Slice meat with skin on, refrigerate, return carcass to stock, bring to the boil, then strain, discarding bones. Serve with chicken. Sawtooth coriander is available from select supermarkets and Thai grocers.

Featured in

Sep 2016

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