A large portion of my living budget is designated for pho, an overwhelmingly flavorful Vietnamese soup that consists of different types of red meat, animal parts, and rice noodles. As such, making pho from scratch was scribbled on the 2013 bucket list; I figured, bowl for bowl, making it would prove cheaper than buying it, leaving me more money for chia pets and beanie babies and more pho for moi.
The process was fairly simple but fairly long; this soup consumed six hours of my day; another six were spent eating it. To be fair, three of these hours were just letting the pot simmer. This step was most excruciating as I stood over the pot for all three hours, smelling the beefy, spiced steam as it curled slowly upwards, wondering whether this endeavor of mine would be even narrowly fruitful. By the way, it is taking an extreme amount of reserve to omit all my favorite “pho” puns, like “this soup is pho-king amazing.” You’re welcome.
If you’re interested, this is the recipe I used. It has very involved explanations of the process. It also has great pictures for those of you who don’t read things because you’re ‘visual learners.’ Surprisingly, the only semi-exotic ingredients required in this dish were star anise and fish sauce. In any case, I look for excuses to go to our local Asian supermarket. The place smells like China, like that sterility of distant raw meats and pickled everything. So I happily meandered through the aisles and admired the creativity of East Asian food products while searching for my anise: pig ear dust and octopus testicles come to mind, and I never thought I’d write those particular words in that particular order.
The following is a bit of documentation and the noble final product. My soup was a large success; it had that complex layering of flavors that I’d come to know in restaurants, and I’m happy to say I now have a better understanding of this famed Vietnamese soup. By ‘understanding,’ I mean it is just bone marrow water with a few spices thrown in. Add some fluffy greens and boom, you’ve got pho.
Behold: the first step is to broil some onions and ginger. I take a moment to appreciate the whimsical symmetry of the ginger root before I disfigure it in my oven.
The required spices. We’ve got some cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, whole cloves, coriander seed, and star anise. The recipe also called for a cardamom pod. Just one. I ignored this request because cardamom pods are difficult to obtain and this soup needed to know I’m the boss around here.
Six large leg bones, boiled and simmered, are the core of this soup. The marrow is the flavor, altered only slightly by the spices mentioned above. After three hours of cooking, the insides will eventually gloop out and give the end product a hearty kick.
Ah, our onions and ginger are done! Charring the onions provides an earthy sweet taste that is a bit smoky as well. I grew up with this method of onion preparation. My grandma chars her onions on an open flame to make her chicken soup, so I was happy to see this in a completely different ethnic dish.
Isn’t it beautiful? Much of the soup will evaporate leaving only concentrated flavors. Submerged under the water are the leg bones and one pound of brisket. Like I said before, watching these flavors marry has been the most memorable part of my day.
For those who’ve never eaten pho: the soup comes with a plate of garnishes that typically includes limes, chili peppers, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, and mint. Anyone who says these garnishes are superficial, like a sprinkling of parsley on pasta, couldn’t be more incorrect. These garnishes in fact add dimensions to the soup that are pretty much unfathomable. We’re talking at least seven dimensions. They add a light vitality to the heavy noodles, meat, and broth. I like my pho with all the limes, peppers, cilantro, and basil on the plate. While the bean sprouts add a fresh crunch, they are a waste of time flavor-wise.
When the broth was done, I boiled the rice noodles and sliced up some London broil. The raw slices are then cooked by the boiling broth in each individual plate, leaving a lovely pink center. Add your fixings, sprinkle with sriracha and hoisin sauces, and voila! Your pho is done and my bucket-list item is declared complete.
Eating it is a process in itself. I like my pho only with a side of good company so that it disappears slowly but surely with little to no thought.