When I watch food shows on TV, I pay close attention to what street cooks do. Not celebrity chefs cooking on a street corner pretending to cook street food. I mean, the real street food cooks because they are the ones who truly have a feel of the food culture of a place.
In an episode of a Bobby Chinn show, for instance, he was learning how to make ph? broth properly. Did he seek a tutorial from a five-star restaurant chef? No, he did not. He went out on the street and learned from the true masters.
A good bowl of pho has a variety of things. The meat may be chicken, beef, pork, seafood or none at all. The vegetable combination is endless. The traditional accompanying herbs are Thai basil, mint and cilantro. A slice of lime is also traditional. But everything starts with a good broth. In making pho broth, it isn’t enough that you have bones and vegetables to simmer. You have to char the aromatics. Yes, char them, either on a grill or an open flame.
You can’t be stingy with the bones either because a good broth has highly concentrated flavors. A bland broth, no matter how much salt and aromatics you add to it, will still taste flat.
The cooking procedure is a bit involved but it’s a good way to understand why pho tastes the way it does and why it is distinct from the noodle soups of other Asian countries.
Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (Pho Gà)
- 1 whole chicken
- 1 whole garlic unpeeled
- 2 to 3 shallots unpeeled
- a generous knob of ginger unpeeled
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon cloves
- 1 star anise or 1 small cinnamon stick (or use both)
- 12 peppercorns
- rice noodles prepared according to package directions
- blanched vegetables whatever you like (carrots and bok choy are great)
- fresh Thai basil
- crisp onion slices homemade or store-bought, and toasted garlic bits, to garnish (optional but recommended)
- Rinse the chicken and place in a large pot. Cover with water, bring to the boil and scoop out the scum that rises. Lower the heat, cover and simmer.
- While waiting for the water to boil, throw the garlic, shallots and ginger on a hot grill or an open flame. I used the gas stove. Simple.
- Using kitchen tongs, turn everything occasionally until the skins are blackened.
- While the garlic, shallots and ginger are roasting, dry toast the fennel seeds, coriander seeds, star anise and cloves in an oil-free pan. A couple of minutes until they start releasing their aroma (when the seeds start popping, they’re ready). Throw them into the chicken in the pot.
- Remove the blackened shallots, ginger and garlic on a plate and, using a clean kitchen towel, gently wipe off and discard the blackened skins. DO NOT RINSE. If a few charred spots remain, let them be. Throw them all into the pot with the chicken. Add the peppercorns too. Season the broth with salt. Simmer for at least an hour. Taste and adjust the seasonings every 15 minutes or so, as needed.
- Scoop out the chicken.
- Strain the broth into a clean pan and set on the stove over low heat. You want it to continue simmering until the moment you pour it into the bowl.
- Using two forks, break the chicken meat into fairly large chunks.
- Assemble your pho. Place noodles in a bowl, top with chicken meat, blanched vegetables, mint, Thai basil and cilantro. Fill the pot with the simmering broth. Sprinkle with crisp onion slices and toasted garlic bits, if using.
- Serve hot.