Monday, April 18, 2011

Making Homemade Pho from Scratch

When I was growing up, I was a real brat eating certain Vietnamese dishes that my Mom would make. I pretty much hated seafood and anything spicy. My Mom did a great job mixing in traditional American dinners and American’ized versions of some Vietnamese dishes so that I would eat it. One dish (or soup) that I would eat without question is Pho. It was weekend morning tradition for the family and I loved twirling the rice noodles and playfully eating it like spaghetti strands. Since moving away for college, my Mom always makes it a point to make Pho when I visit Erie and outside of that, I usually hit up one of the Pho places in South Philadelphia. For those unfamiliar, Pho is Vietnamese rice noodle soup that is often served with any combination of cuts of thinly sliced sirloin, beef flank, tripe, and Vietnamese meat balls. The distinct beef broth is what really gives Pho its unique taste. Pho is also known as a Vietnamese super food for curing a hangover with its mix of rice noodles and a salty/fatty broth that is perfect after a long night out.
A couple of weeks ago, my parents came and visited Philly and since there isn’t much of a Vietnamese presence in Erie, we went to the Vietnamese supermarket to pick-up a few things they needed. While we were there, I got the random idea to learn to cook Vietnamese, or at least the stuff I knew I would like and want to eat. Pho was the easy one to try first. I can’t read Vietnamese so it was a big help that my Mom was there to guide me toward the ingredients that I needed to buy. In terms of the recipe, I did a quick Google search and used this Pho recipe as my main guide.
The first step was to do an initial boil of the bone marrow to boil off excess fat and impurities that would be removed. It pretty much collects as a dirty foam that is scooped off with a spoon and thrown away. After about 5 minutes or so, the bone marrow is then removed and put into another pot of boiling water to prepare the broth.
While the bone marrow is boiling in the water, part of the flavor in the broth comes from charred onions and ginger. I basically just cut each in half and put it over the stove flames to get the right char which releases the aroma when soaked in the broth. The onion, ginger, sugar, and fish sauce is then added to the broth which then cooks at a steady simmer for an hour and a half.
After simmering for an hour and half, the special spices are added. It essentially a blend of star anise and cloves with some other stuff in a spice bag. Rather than buying these ingredients separately and making my own spice bag, my Mom pointed me toward a pre-packaged bag with all the spices in it and ready to be dropped into the broth. These spices soak/seep in the broth for about 30 minutes and really gives the Pho broth its unique aromatic qualities.
While the spices soak, I used this time to cut up the garnishes. These usually include bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai chilies, and Asian basil but I don’t like any of that stuff so for my own dish, I went with thinly sliced sirloin, sliced onions, cut up chives, and lime slices.
After soaking for 30-minutes, the spice bag is removed and the Pho dish is ready to be “assembled.” The noodles used in Pho are thin rice noodles that are placed into boiling water for about 4-5 minutes. The rice noodles are then removed and placed into the serving bowl. The next step is preference. Some folks like to boil the sliced sirloin in the broth first to cook it a little before adding it to the bowl with the noodles and adding the beef broth to finish cooking. The other option is to put the raw sirloin with the onions/chives and adding the beef broth once it has hit a rolling boil to cook the meat as soon as the broth is added to the bowl of rice noodles.
Once the hot beef broth is added, it instantly cooks the meat and the result is fresh, hot bowl of delicious Pho!

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