Spring is taking its time arriving this year, and there seem to be more cloudy days than sunshine. But that’s not a problem – while I wait for the outside to warm up, I can just warm up my insides. With a Vietnamese pho, to be exact. Cooking Asian food can seem so different than what I’m used to making in the kitchen. Can my soup match the dish at my favorite local spot? I turned to Modernist Cuisine to help me in my quest.
Note: It’s way too easy to play on words with the pronunciation of the word “pho”, which is “fuh”. For instance, we have a chain of restaurants here in Seattle called “What The Pho?“. I will try to abstain.
A Little Background on Pho
Pho is called the national dish of Vietnam. But, surprisingly, it has only been around for about 100 years. It is thought to be a combination of Chinese and French influences – Cantonese noodle soup with the Western addition of red meat instead of fish. The word “pho” is thought to either be from the Chinese word “fen” or the French “pot au feu”.
There are two types of pho: pho bac and pho nam. Pho bac is from the North, and is considered more authentic. Its focus is on the broth and contains just a few ingredients: the noodles, meat and green onions. Pho nam is from the South and has more herb garnishes like basil and sprouts, different types of meat like tendon and chicken, and additional sauces like hoisin and sriracha. Pho nam is what is common in the US, and is what I enjoy. So this is what I tackled in my home.
The key to a good pho is the broth. Now a broth is different than a stock. Broth is a fully seasoned soup that can stand on its own, whereas a stock is unseasoned and must be further refined before eating. Pho starts with water as the base, so I needed to nail it on the first go. First off was making a little sachet (there’s your French influence) of spices – peppercorns, cinnamon, star anise and allspice. I crushed, toasted, and wrapped my little scented packet up.
Next was cutting up the onions and ginger and charring them to get some nice flavor compounds to blend into the soup. I tried directly on the gas range and I tried a cast iron skillet. But the fastest and easiest way was with a blow torch. Seriously.
Next was to blanch the beef knunckles (to get rid of any potential bacteria sitting on the surface of the meat) and to sear the oxtail to get more flavor compounds from the Maillard reaction of amino acids and sugar browning the surface.
My components completed, it was time to throw it all in the water and cook it. This is where a pressure cooker comes in handy. From Modernist Cuisine:
A pressure cooker…can knock the cooking time down by as much as a factor of eight. The device works by using pressure to raise the boiling point of water, which normally limits the cooking temperature to 100C/212F…Because the effective cooking temperature is higher, the cooking time can drop substantially.
In this case, down to just 90 minutes. One key step, however, is to NOT let the pressure cooker release steam. Although not proven, it seems that venting the cooker lets a lot of the flavor compounds to escape from the broth, degrading its quality. So I kept a watchful eye and ear, tinkering with the heat occasionally to make sure my cooker was silent and unvented.
After 90 minutes, I let it cool down. This step will allow the flavor compounds to settle back into the broth before releasing the steam to depressurize the cooker. I was left with a lovely broth, ready to be strained out, seasoned with salt, sugar and fish sauce, and used. And by used, I mean eaten.
From Pot to Bowl
So with my broth complete, I just needed to make the rest of it. For the next component, the meat, I needed to slice it up. Here I got an excuse to pull out my hip and sexy meat slicer.
This was originally Eric’s. He found it on Craigslist for like $65. When he moved to Chicago, however, he couldn’t take everything with him, so he gave it to me. He hasn’t asked for it back. Yet.
The sliced meat wasn’t as thin as I would’ve liked, but was enough so that it would cook through in the broth.
I put my pho noodles in boiling water for 10 seconds and then strained them. I put them in a bowl. I added the meat, green onions and cilantro. I poured hot broth over them. I then garnished with thai basil, lime juice, hoisin and sriracha. I made a bowl of pho.
Modernist Cuisine came through once again. I learned how to make a new dish, and learned the science behind the scenes to apply to other cooking forays. Holy cow was it good. It was ph-…no. I won’t do it. I will not make a play on the word “pho”. It was fucking great.