Sunday, 19 August 2018

Pho Real

I love the idea of never eating the same dish twice. It was an idea that came from New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser and sometime ago I wrote a blog post on. The idea fascinates me on the level that there are so many food experiences out there you could actually do that and from the level that life is fuelled by new experiences.

But I have found out whilst I am always pushing the boundaries there are just some flavour combinations that dig deep under your skin and refuse to be silent.

Until re-reading that original article just now I had completely forgotten that I mentioned Pho as a dish that I keep coming back to. Pho is well known across the world now, but the first time I tried it at Pho 2000 in Saigon at the same table as Bill and Chelsea Clinton (not with them but there is a photo of them eating at that table under the glass) I had never heard of it. It was love at first taste of course. That unctuous meaty broth offset by the bright herbs and the zing of lime and chilli, the slurping of the rice noodles and the cold crunch of the bean sprouts it's the type of meal that you could never tire of.

The popularity of the dish has spawned a million bad reproductions. I quite often order Pho if it is on the menu and it ranges from a sad, watery soup with tired herbs and no pizzaz to decent bowls where an attempt has been made to actually cook it from bones. Probably the best version I have had in Australia is at Saigon Sally in Melbourne.

In saying that nothing has compared to the real thing, a part of that is the fact you can never replicate the first time you consume a dish in its home country. There is magical quality about the smells and sounds and the excitement that comes with travel. But then I started making Pho myself and it all changed. My homemade Pho from scratch is done the traditional way with kilos of bones and marrow all cooked down for many hours until you have a broth that is thick with gelatin and when cold, sets into a jelly. I think that is the true test of a good Pho and I would say 90% of those I have had in restaurants would still be the same watery mess after a night in the fridge.

I have made Saigon style Pho maybe 4-5 times. It is what I am familiar with from travelling, a sweet broth with a wide range of dressings and finishings. I decided it was time to branch out and make the northern Vietnamese version, a Hanoi style Pho.

If you have ever read my blog you will know that I always turn to an expert when I first get started with a recipe and my favourite recipe for the Saigon style Pho is by Andrea Nguyen from her cookbook The Pho Cookbook.

The method for the Hanoi version is the same, it isn't a totally different dish, it is just the flavour profiles that differ. The Hanoi version has more spices, this recipes uses star anise, fennel, black cardamom and cinnamon. There is also dried shrimp or scallops in this recipe which boosts the umami of the dish. The final dressings are also more paired back. The final Hanoi dish is seasoned with fish sauce which is a must and topped with mint, coriander, shallots (scallions), chilli and finished with garlic vinegar. The Saigon has rock sugar in the broth which makes it sweet and is finished with bean sprouts, coriander, basil, onion, lime and a range of sauces like hoisin and chilli sauce.

The garlic vinegar intrigued me. This wasn't something I has seen before and I love tart tastes. It is very simple to make, it is just rice vinegar with some thai chillis and garlic soaked in it. I tried the soup before adding it and it was so good I was hesitant but Andrea had explained it is something that the northerners grow up with so I had to try it and wow, it really lifts the dish. It does for it what the lime does for the Saigon version, adding a brightness to something that is very deep and rich.

You can also differ what you have in the soup. The Saigon version I have a preference for beef balls and Andrea provides a great recipe for these and the Hanoi version I went with the cooked brisket which is done in the broth and taken out half way through the cooking process, cooled and thinly sliced. In both versions I also go with the rare beef and I use eye fillet which is a little extravagant but it is just so tender when lightly cooked by the broth.

If time permits I also add extra water at the beginning and cook for longer. At the point I want it to stop reducing I add the lid and let it simmer away, slowly enhancing and enriching the flavours. Andrea recommend 3 hours but I will do for 6-8 hours. The more I can extract from those bones the tastier the broth is. I have done one overnight before but I think at 8 hours you are close to peak awesomeness but it can't hurt if you have the time.

From the two styles I don't think I could pick a favourite. As long as you have chosen a good recipe for each then you will have a meal that will melt your brain. I do love the additional layers of spices in the Hanoi version but on the other hand a sweet broth with those springy beef balls has it's place too.

I can't encourage you enough to try making Pho at home. Unless you live in Vietnam you will struggle to get the type of quality you can make yourself.

It's also a great dish to go have a chat to your local butcher about. There is nothing better than to have a butcher rummage around out the back and find you marrow bones, oxtail and pigs trotters. They can cut it all to size for you for your stock pot and can tailor your cuts of meat and bones to your preference. Andrea has a great section in the book all about sourcing and selecting the right bones. It does make a difference as you do want marrow and collagen to thicken the soup and create that jelly effect. It's what really sets apart a good Pho and one made from a powdered packet mix which really should be outlawed.

Serve the soup with the accompaniments on the side so eaters can tailor the flavours to their preference.

Originally posted on Sunday, 19 August 2018 by