Saturday, July 15, 2017

Vietnamese Beef Noodles

One of my favorite things to do when I’m in Vietnam, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, is to seek out a neighborhood stall selling the ubiquitous noodle soup featuring rice noodles in a broth with lots of fresh herbs and vegetables. The meat element can be beef, chicken or duck, but the flavorsome broth. boiled for hours over a charcoal fire and imbued with complex spices, is what makes this such a divine comfort food.

Whether at home or abroad in cities like Melbourne, London or Amsterdam, I’m always drawn to Vietnamese restaurants which generally serve a pho of one kind or another. I love the variations in taste and condiments, but it always comes down to how delicious the broth is. I figure it depends on the bones used to make the broth. so when I recently discovered that one of my local supermarkets had frozen beef bones, I decided to try my hand at making beef pho, or pho bo.

On one of my trips to Melbourne, I had picked up a couple of packets of mixed spices for the broth, which saved my having to mix up a batch myself, but it’s pretty simple to do. Just put together a little of cinnamon sticks, cloves, coriander pods, star anise and cardamom. The trick, as my friend F told me, is to toast or char the spices, as well as the onions and ginger. The process really brings out the flavor of the spices and is a step you shouldn’t skip. I guess it’s as easy to fry them in a dry pan or stick them in the oven. I also bought a muslin bag to put in all the toasted spices so that I wouldn’t have to fish them out of the soup later.

Another trick I learned is to parboil beef bones first in rapidly boiling water in your stockpot. This gets rid of all the yucky impurities. After about five to ten minutes of rapid boiling, dump out all the water and rinse out the pot as well as the bones. Then refill the pot with clean, cool water and add the bones. It’s an extra step but it's really key to getting clear, clean-tasting broth.

As with all Vietnamese cooking, fish sauce is an important element. I may not be Vietnamese, But I use fish sauce in lieu of soy in all my cooking. I can’t sing its praises enough. I know many people (my mother in law included!) are put off by its strong smell, but once you add it into your cooking, you don’t smell the fishyness anymore and it does really impart an aromatic je ne sais quoi to your cooking .

What makes pho bo so quintessentially Vietnamese is the addition of herbs and vegetables. I know you can sort of make do with lettuce and other greens, but to me, thai basil, mint, coriander and bean sprouts are a must. The addition of lime also adds a certain kick. The chilli sauce you serve with the pho is also very important. I know you can use commercially bought chilli sauce or sriracha but if you can make an really awesome sauce, it adds an entirely different dimension to the dish. I found a couple of recipes that offered up what I had in mind and I mixed up my own version of a chilli sauce that is pretty darn good, if I may say so myself! I usually make a bigger batch of it than I need, and just keep it in the fridge to use whenever.

Pho bo doesn’t take much preparation, besides boiling up the broth, and gathering all the other ingredients that go into the soup, including rice noodles, vegetables, herbs and beef. I try to buy thinly slices of sukiyaki beef, and I also found pretty good frozen beef balls, which I love in my pho as well. It’s really a matter of playing around with what’s available and making your own version of the dish. Nowadays, I just boil up a huge stockpot of the beef broth, and freeze batches of it so that whenever the urge for pho arises, I can just whip up the dish in no time at all.

Vietnamese beef noodles (Pho Bo)
1 kg of beef bones
I packet of pho spices (1 cinnamon stick, 1 tbl coriander seeds, 1 tbl fennel seeds, 5 whole star anise, 1 cardamom pod, 6 whole cloves)
2 onions, sliced in half
4” piece of ginger, sliced in half lengthwise
50 gm of palm sugar
Fish sauce to taste, and white pepper
Flat rice noodles (dried or fresh)
400 gm of sliced beef
Beef balls
Handfuls of Thai basil, coriander, mint, beansprouts
Lime wedges

Toast or char the sliced, onions and ginger, as well as spices.
Parboil beef bones, then boil in a large pot with enough water to cover them, together with onions and ginger.
Place all the spices in a muslin bag and add to the pot.
Bring to the boil and gently simmer for at least 3 hours.
Remove the bones, muslin bag, onions and ginger. Strain the broth if necessary.
Add fish sauce to taste, as well as pepper and the palm sugar.
Cook the dried rice noodles according to the directions on the packet, or quickly blanch the fresh rice noodles.
Arrange all the herbs and vegetables on a platter to be added at the the dining table.
Serve the chilli sauce as well with wedges of lime.
Fill each bowl with some rice noodles, raw beef slices and cooked beef balls.
Ladle hot broth into each bowl. This will cook the beef to just the right doneness.
Serve pho immediately. Guests can help themselves to the herbs and vegetables.

Wonderful chilli sauce for pho and other dishes
2 cloves garlic
2 shallots
4 red chillies
2 dried chillies
25 gm dried shrimp, soaked
1 tsp sugar
5 tbl vegetable oil

In a food processor or grinder, grind all the ingredients except the oil, to a rough paste.
Heat oil in a pan, add the ground mixture and fry over a low heat until fragrant.
Cool and store.