I’ve waited, after 5 weeks away from home, I waited, for this!
I know you may think “Here we go again, Vietnamese going for Pho! Such no surprise!” but yes I have to tell you, it is true – this Vietnamese loves Pho, any Vietnamese loves Pho, as natural as a breathe, and Pho feels like home. True thing! I was sad to leave India, I miss its food and my Masala Chai tea (yes I call it mine!;), but on the flight home I know I crave for Pho.
Hanoi is famous for all kinds of Pho, and there are various Pho houses that offer authentic local flavor of Pho with their own secret ingredients in the broth to make theirs different and unique from others. They are beautiful, delicious and undeniable. Yet I was just craving for my mom’s Pho, cos’ yes, Pho feels like home, but homemade Pho is exactly Home.
Pho, to a Hanoian, is like a part of life you never want to leave behind. Hanoians love being romantic about their own authentic food, and so I happened to love Pho more than just a bowl of rice noodle soup, in Pho you find a soul, a spirit, a blend of all home flavors, there you know how much you have missed home after your first sip of its broth; with a sense of being satisfied, and familiar, a good Pho sends you right home!
Homemade Pho to me, is my mother’s love and her attention to create a great Pho, from choosing the fresh ingredients, to cooking the beautiful savory broth that feels and tastes right. There are three elements that make up a bowl of Vietnamese Pho: the broth, the noodle, and the topping. You may have seen some variations of Pho, but to any Hanoian, there are only 2 kinds of main topping: chicken and beef, with other garnishes as herbs and spices. (I have seen pork topping in a northern province of Vietnam and I can’t really say it is the Pho that I know). Also here and there you see the difference in the width size of the rice noodle, some can be very thin, some wider, my mom usually goes for the one in between (about less than half a centimeter wide I think). The rice noodle is a key factor to make a good bowl of Pho. It is made freshly from rice flour, cut into white flat strips and when cooked it should be translucent, importantly soft yet chewy. After freshly bought from the market we usually keep it in the fridge to prevent it from going bad and reserve its freshness. And before serving, you can run the noodle through warm water to make it soft. My mom is always very careful and sometimes cautious about the temperature of the warm water, it should not be too hot, nor too cold; to ensure that the noodle is not overcooked and so may become too soft. Every single time I helped my mom preparing the noodle, she reminds me about the warmth of the water, every single time – I tell you, I would always say “Mom, I know!!!”, but that does not really stop her from making sure the noodle was being well taken care of. That to tell you how my mom is very careful in every steps of making Pho, and how the rice noodle plays such an important role in the Pho making process.
Now on to the most crucial element of Vietnamese Pho: the broth – the soul of the dish. The broth is what builds up the distinct flavor and character for the Pho. It happens mostly all the time, the first thing people would do with a bowl of Pho is to use the spoon and take in a sip of the Pho broth. It is important to feel right about the broth, it decides the whole quality of the Pho bowl, everything goes wrong with a bad Pho broth, and a perfect broth makes it such a satisfying eating experience for everyone. There is no perfect technique to make a good Pho broth, there are common elements to cook the broth that everyone uses, but then each person decides their own ratio and preference of these ingredients, it is more like adding and adjusting to taste, so actually no two batch of Pho broth would taste exactly the same. This is the part where Vietnamese Pho gets personal don’t you agree? And if you have heard any Vietnamese who say the best Pho you ever taste is the one cooked by your mother, I confirm, it is true! There will be one or two Pho restaurants that they love to go to, but mom’s (or wives’) homemade Pho will always be the best! No cliché!
To make this Pho broth here, my mom use beef knuckle bones. She boils the bones in high heat for about 5 to 7 minutes to make sure all the impurities in the beef are removed. After the boil, she would rinse the bones and then transfer them in the stockpot and simmer for an hour or two, she makes sure to check the pot regularly to ladle any scum rising to the top of the stockpot out, so the broth is clear. Spices are important to enhance the flavor of the broth, here she uses cinnamon, star anise and cloves. A big piece of ginger is charred in the flame to bring out its flavor, and then my mom would smash it into smaller pieces and put them in the stockpot. After the long simmer, the broth is strained and then seasoned with salt. Some would use fish sauce but my mom only use salt because the long simmer of the bones has already give the broth the meaty sweetness. The seasoning and topping as well as garnishing vary from each person, but basically the broth is cooked with spices, and then your Pho is ready to be served, with fresh beef, herbs and spring onions, possibly bean sprouts, and we never eat Pho without lime. Squeeze some lime juice in to the broth and feel the tangy lemon flavor in your Pho. For me, lime is a must-have, and I never eat Pho without it. Also one thing you can’t miss is the chili sauce or some slices of fresh hot chili to give the steamy aromatic bowl of Pho that hot feeling. It is a feast of flavor and love, altogether in one hot steamy bowl. One beautiful cooking and eating experience, and just like that, I am home!
*I would love to go into details on the meat topping for Pho but it would make this post too long. If you have a question, please feel free to ask in the comments.