A few years ago, on my birthday, Harsha took me to a Vietnamese restaurant on campus, Kai Hanon (literally means Festival Opening). We have been going there for a few years but for one dish: Deep fried lemongrass chicken. But one glance around the place, and you will find everyone else’s dishes more interesting. And a major chunk of the Asians out there slurping on a certain noodle soup. Noodles in a soup? Never saw anything like that before. I even ridiculed it in my head. But this birthday, I wanted to try something new. And there was nothing else I knew on the menu. When the owner comes down to our table, to take our order, I pointed at the next table and asked for that dish with noodles and soup. He gave me a curious look and asked ‘beef okay?’. ‘Yes’. Harsha looks at me doubtfully and suggests we order a backup. When it finally arrived, first slurp, ‘Harsha, its like bone soup, but more fatty. Must be the beef’. Second slurp, ‘I don’t know. Can I eat your food?’. But eventually, it grew on me and I couldn’t stop taking bites of the steak and slurping my soup. The sriracha made my Indian taste buds happy, but the original flavor was so well balanced that i decided to lay off it. Harsha watched in disbelief that i ate my whole bowl and ignored the precious lemongrass chicken. And so it started. A love affair with Pho.
Whenever i can get a take out, it is almost always Pho. The salty soup, the steak, the rice noodles cooked to perfection, the toppings, …. i adore it all. As a home cook, a quick estimation of cost looking at the ingredients makes my paying 10$ for a bowl of pho not so smart. Been wanting to make it myself but been put it off thinking its not worth buying additional spices for one experiment.
When i started looking for a theme for this blog, i picked ‘Duet Theme‘. I wanted to see what it looks like and started searching for blogs using this theme. That is when i stumbled upon ‘The Squeaky Robot‘. I adore her blog and everything about her. And she has a post dedicated to Pho. It was a ‘i found someone special’ moment i very rarely find with bloggers. I dedicated a good chunk of my weekend and read it cover to cover. Back to the story, she made pho. She is a world traveller and wanderer. And i have a well stocked kitchen. If she can do it, i should be able to do it.
With the impending trip to fetch groceries round the corner, I suggested the asian market. Harsha is happy i did pick ‘whole (paycheque) foods’ or some farmers market miles away. We pick up our usual stuff and then i tell him to stay back since he may not be able to handle the meat section. Tell a man he cant handle it, and vola, he accompanies you where ever you want him to go. Soon, he is making faces that read ‘disgusting’ , ‘can we go now’, ‘what on earth do you want from here?’, ‘i dont want to eat it’, …. Well Harsha, the prophecy of “i want to learn how to cook every part of every animal” is coming true. Four years of marriage and now you get to see the true colors.
The meat section in Mekong is like going to another country. People from many many nationalities come out here. You will see men hunched over crabs poking the crabs belly to test the fleshiness. And all sorts of sea animals swimming in tiny glass box cages ready to be sold. You can learn the anatomy of these animal by hovering around. And have a casual conversation with the butcher about change in the quality of lobsters due to global warming. I had three parts written down in my grocery list : oxtail, knuckle bone, steak. I stood next to the oxtails and stare, unable to decide how much or how many i want. The butcher comes by and yells, “how much?”. “One”, i reply. “One tail”. “Full tail?”, he askes pointing to a tail hanging at the back of the butcher shop. “One pound”, i say, since it feels like the smarter thing to say at the moment. He smiles. “What are you making?”, he askes. “Pho”. “Cheaper bones are over there”, he says. We have a little chat in broken english. Finally, i warm up to the surroundings. And the place no longer intimidates me. Occasionally, I check on Harsha to see if he is still around. I pick up a few more ‘bits and bobs’, literally. I am all set to cook.
Some real good explanation on how to make pho can be found at: Meat Loves Salt (They are a vietnamese and it is a family recipe. They elaborate on the variations one could make and the results hence forth) & Steamy Kitchen ( I trust her recipes. And kudos to her for following up with the comments and making variations to her recipe and giving detailed explanations. All the signs of a recipe maker to be trusted.)
Some interesting facts about Pho:
0. Its a street side breakfast item in Vietnam. These vendors open their ‘stores’ at 7am and its not uncommon to sell out by 11am.
1. The Vietnamese judge the Pho by the flavor of the broth. When locals discuss good pho places, they only talk about the broth. Rest of the add ons like noodles, meat, mint, sprouts, etc are fresh ingredients that are available at all the places and hence are not the distinguishing factors.
2. Pho is referred to as ‘labor of love’ since the broth requires extremely long time to simmer. And Pho refers to the noodle and not soup.
3. If you are eaten Pho is a traditional setting or in the US, there is a good chance it is laden with MSG. I know its the ‘no no’ ingredient, but street food vendors and restauranteurs who are not chefs use it as a short cut to make tastier broth.
4. The legend has it that its the French influence that brought this varient to the Vietnam in the 1900s. Some experts say its derived from the French word ‘Pot au Feu’ which means ‘Pot on fire’. Also, the charring of the onion and ginger, are French techniques for making soups.
Read full history: History of Pho Noodle Soup. Give it a chance. Try everything once !