Procrastination. It’s the devil in a shoddy disguise, isn’t it?
I’ve been procrastinating and putting off writing this entry for a few weeks now but that’s nothing when compared to how long I’ve been putting off being a Good Vietnamese Girl.
Come closer gentle reader. I’ve a confession to make.
I don’t know how to cook pho.
Okay. I actually don’t know how to cook ANY Vietnamese food. (Though in my defence, I have got the art of making nuoc cham down to a fine art. Too many people don’t get the balance of sweet, sour and hot right. Oh and garlic. Don’t be shy. Everyone knows it’s not date food.)
So, gripped in the self-perpetuating misery and wallowing that only being pathetically ill can induce, I became gripped with a yearning for comfort food. For the food of my childhood. Whenever I was ill when I was a child, my dad always insisted on feeding me a bowl of steaming hot, aromatic pho. He insisted (still does, as a matter of fact) that a good bowl of pho does wonders to make you sweat all the toxins out. (The rationalist in me disagrees. The glutton nods along and overpowers the rationalist.)
Now that I’m no longer within a stone’s throw from my dad’s pho, the procrastinator in me has been edged out by primal need for the gastronomical equivalent of lying down and having my hair stroked. Knowing that traditional beef pho is rather involved and includes sourcing oxtail, I opted to master chicken pho first.
Cleaner and brighter than its bovine relative, chicken pho consists of a simple consomme flavoured with the heat of smoky chargrilled onion and ginger and bolstered with aromatic cinnamon, star anise and cloves. Silky rice noodles, tender chicken breast and verdant coriander make this sing on the palate and in your heart.
My version of chicken pho requires chicken bones (something ever present in my freezer due to my stock-making mania). However, I’m aware that not everyone keeps a ready supply of carcasses in their freezer. It’s traditionally made with boiling a chicken really, so go forth and do it properly. Unlike the Bad Viet that I really am.
a chicken (either the bones or a whole raw chicken)
two chicken thighs or breast (if not using a whole raw chicken)
a large white onion
a generous lump of ginger
a stick of cinnamon
nuoc mam (Thai fish sauce)
pho (flat white rice noodles)
red onion, finely sliced
spring onions, finely sliced
Sriracha chilli sauce
hoi sin sauce
Start by halving the white onion and ginger in half and place under a medium-heat grill (skins on and all). You want the edges to catch and brown to impart a smoky note to the broth. Place in the largest saucepan you have with the chicken bones (or whole chicken if using), a cinnamon stick, two star anise and four or five cloves. Cover with water and bring to the boil.
Note: you will notice that you’ll get a greyish scum rising to the surface whilst the broth boils. Let the broth boil for a few minutes so that you can skim this off. Skimming off the weird foam will ensure that you get a lovely clear consomme. Don’t be freaked out, it’s just a thing that happens when you boil up a chicken carcass. Don’t think about it. Trust me.
Transfer over to a low heat and let it simmer for an hour and a half to two hours with a lid on. Periodically check to see if it needs skimming (it shouldn’t do after the first half an hour or so).
In the meantime, you can prepare the herb garnish by finely slicing a small red onion (paper thin as you possibly can); two spring onions; a bunch of coriander and mint (if you can get Thai sweet basil as well, add this into the mixture too). Mix this all together in a bowl. It looks like a lot but I guarantee you that you’ll want a generous helping of this later. Wash your beansprouts and cut up your lime into wedges.
To prepare the noodles, boil up a kettle of water. Meanwhile, place the noodles in a saucepan of cold water. Let them soak for about 15 minutes before draining and soaking in hot water for 5-10 minutes (they should be pliable and silky without being overcooked. Think al-dente.)
By this point, the broth should be ready. Strain if you want to do it properly. If you are lazy like me, you’ll use a slotted spoon to scoop out the bones, onion, ginger and spices. If you are using a whole chicken, strip the carcass of the meat. If you’ve gone the lazy route with the leftover bones, now’s the time to throw in your chicken breast or thighs to cook through. Either way, make sure to season the broth with four or five tablespoons of nuoc mam.
To assemble: place the noodles in a large bowl, top with a generous handful of the herb garnish, some finely chopped chillies and shredded or sliced chicken pieces. Finally, ladle in the broth and serve with a selection of sauces and a general feeling of contentment.