This is a love story. Like all love stories, it is about pursuit, frustration, elation and pain.
It is about obsession.
But it isn’t about my beloved husband, and how we came together.
It is about soup. It is about a soup which arouses argument and jealousy, obsession and devotion, lust and desire in more people than just myself and a few others.
It is about pho.
The idea to write about it came to me two days ago while I was having coffee and a leftover naan (made by Zak–his first breadmaking outing–a round of applause, please!) for breakfast. I came across this Washington Post article about a quest to learn how to make pho. I had to giggle, because it made me remember my experimentations in that area, which were made more piquant by the desperation born of someone who needed to understand it so she could teach it to others.
I used to teach culinary arts in Columbia Maryland through Howard County Parks and Recreations Adult Education program. I specialized in teaching Asian cuisines: Chinese, Thai and Indian, mostly, and I was surprised to find that many of my students were Asian American adults who had never learned to cook from their parents or grandparents, but who said that my food reminded them of what they had in childhood. Other students were Anglo-Americans who had worked for the government in the intelligence community or diplomatic corps, and so had traveled quite extensively and wanted to learn to recreate the foods that they had eaten in various Asian countries often decades ago.
Many of my students became regulars, and I ended up making friends with many of them. At the end of class, I always had to pass out an evaluation form which asked questions about what they learned, my teaching style, and what other classes the students would like to see me offer.
The single most requested class was on on pho bo–the sublime Vietnamese beef and rice noodle soup. It is a deceptively simple dish: pliant, pre-cooked rice noodles are nested in a large, warmed bowl, with one or more of the following–well-done beef slices, chewy beef tendon, and paper-thin slices of raw beef–placed on top. Then, boiling hot, clear amber-colored beef stock, fragrant with spices and the mysterious depth of nam plaa–fish sauce, is poured over it all, cooking any of the raw beef within seconds. A sprinkling of scallion tops and translucent onion slices are scattered over the bowl, which is presented with a platter of Thai basil, cilantro sprigs, fresh bean sprouts, jalapeno chile slices, and lime wedges, so the diner can customize the dish to their own taste. On the table is always a tall bottle of scarlet sriracha, hoisin sauce, and nuac cham– a spicy condiment of fish sauce, garlic, lime juice, sugar and fresh Thai chiles. These sauces allow further flavor possibilities, allowing individual diners to make as potently fiery or as soothingly mild dish as they prefer.
But, as I, and the Washington Post reporter discovered, pho may look simple, but it isn’t.
The backbone of the dish is the beef stock, which, while it may be based upon French culinary principles, does not taste like most European style beef stocks at all. And while, on the face of it, stocks are simple to make–you stick bones in water and simmer for a long time–there is really a lot more to it than that.
First of all, in order to make stock at home, you need a -really- large pot (anything less than twenty quarts is a waste of time, in my opinion–there is no sense in making only a little stock), which may or may not fit on your stove. And even if it does fit, your stove may or may not throw out enough BTU’s to adequately heat such a gigantic cooking vessel. And then, if you do have a pot and a stove that are adequate, you have to get beef bones. Good ones. Ones that are fresh. And that means that you have to have a butcher or grocer or a farmer whom you trust. If you are lucky, you can go to a large Asian market and talk with someone in the meat department and tell them that you are making pho, and they will know what to get for you, and usually, will give you advice on how to proceed. Of course, how they make pho may not be how the restaurant that you like makes pho, but as I discovered, there is apparently no one “right and proper” way to make pho–there are endless variants on the theme.
Once you have the pot, the stove and the bones, you have to go about making the stock.
Which you will find takes all day. In fact, that innocuous looking bowl of gorgeous soup takes about two days or so to make. It represents hours of work. Which, I suspect, is why most people go out and eat pho–at around six dollars a bowl it is a bloody bargain.
But, like the Post reporter, I was driven to learn how to make it, so I went out, and ate many bowls of the stuff, (it was a great sacrifice, I tell you) analyzed the flavors, and took notes. I shamelessly accosted cooks at the Asian markets, waitresses in restaurants and little elderly Asian ladies in parking lots to ask questions. I tool more notes, then read every Vietnamese cookbook I could get my hot little hands on in order to synthesize a recipe for pho.
Which I did. My recipe differs slightly from the one in the Post, but not by much. Instead of the sugar, mine uses parsnips–a touch I got from Nicole Routhier, whose mother always used parsnips for the subtle sweetness they added to the stock. I like that better than the sugar flavor–rock sugar is too easily overdone, whereas the parsnips add not only sweetness but an almost floral quality to the fragrance of the stock that you cannot get with rock sugar.
And then, I tested the recipes and refined them. In doing so, I remembered something I learned from culinary school–the early stages of making beef stock are a messy, smelly business.
Chicken stock smells good while it cooks, from the very beginning to its golden end.
Beef stock smells godawful until it is nearly done, and even then, the smells of the early stages are still hanging around, making a dank miasma of the atmosphere in not only the kitchen, but if you have inadequate ventilation, the entire house.
I persevered, bringing the bones to their first boil and then pouring out the water and washing the bones again, and then starting them over and diligently skimming the scum that rose to the top, and patiently watching to make certain that the liquid only simmered, never boiled, and skimming, and sweating, as the bone and marrow scent began to permeate my clothes, hair and my very skin.
For ten hours I cooked it until I ended up with a pale, and flavorful stock. I strained it and then refrigerated it and then the next day scraped most of the fat from the top and then brought it back to a simmer and added the spices and fish sauce, and simmered it a bit longer, then began cooking the noodles. I set up the condiments and then, sliced the half-frozen beef into shavings and presented it all to Zak.
It was really good, but not only was I exhausted, I smelled funny.
But I had a recipe I could teach to the class which my supervisor had told me was full and with a waiting list.
The day before I was to teach, I made another huge pot of stock, creating yet another cloud of stench in the house, and prepped the herbs and vegetables. On the day of class, I skimmed off most of the fat, flavored the stock with the spices, cooled it in order to transport it, and then packed all the food up. I packed some bones, and a small pot so I could demonstrate the early stages of stock-making, and went early to the classroom, so I could bring the finished stock to a simmer for presentation. By the time I was finished lugging all of this up the stairs, I was exhausted, and once again, felt like I smelled funny.
So, the students showed up, many of them regulars, and many others new faces. They were all fairly wriggling with excitement, because I was going to show them how to make pho.
So, I gave my talk about what I had learned, how I learned it and how many batches of pho I had made (quite a few) in order to figure out a good recipe for the beef stock. Then, I demonstrated the making of beef stock with some beef bones, parsnips, ginger and all that stuff. Predictably, when the water boiled the first time, the smell arose with the clouds of steam, and some folks in the front row curled their lips.
“Are those bones fresh?” a lady in the second row asked tentatively.
“Yes, they are, ma’am,” I answered. “Beef bones just smell that way when they first start cooking. That is just how they are. It is the blood and other impurities coming off and out of them. The good smells come later.”
People started to look decidedly less thrilled with the prospect of making pho.
Then, I showed them how you dumped the water out, washed the bones, the pot, the everything and started over and eyes widened and they began to understand why it is better just to go out and plunk down the six dollars when you had a craving. They looked at each other and said, “I had no idea it was so hard.”
Once I demonstrated the scum skimming, and told them how many times they had to do that over the next seven to ten hour period, I turned off the heat under the stinky pot, and put it outside the classroom door and shut the door to keep the smell out. I turned up the heat on the crystal clear heavenly-scented finished stock, and brought it to a boil, while I showed them how to cut paper thin slices of rare beef. The well done beef, I had already cut. There were no tendons–I forgot to pick some up, but of course, someone asked about them, so I told them that you cook them the same amount of time as the well-done beef, and you take them out around the same time.
Then, I started assembling small bowls of pho for twenty-five people.
While I was occupied with this, and people were lining up for tastes, and playing with the plates of condiments and garnishes and bottles of sriracha, which I call “the sacred rooster sauce,” I bantered back and forth with the students and learned that many of them had worked in Vietnam or had been stationed there at an embassy or who had gone there to adopt children. After everyone was served, silence fell, broken only by slurps and exclamations of satisfaction.
As they filed up for seconds, I opened the floor to questions. One extremely well-dressed, bejewelled and meticulously coifed woman raised her beautifully manicured hand and when I nodded to her, asked, “Is there any way to make pho more easily than this?”
To their credit, everyone else turned and looked at her as if she had just announced that she had come from the Planet Xenon and that she was sorry but we were all to be terminated in the next five minutes.
I bit my lip to keep from screaming, “If there was, don’t you think I would have taught you that?!” Instead, I gripped the edge of the stove, and smiled sweetly. “Not really, no,” I answered in my most polite voice.
She blinked and pursed her lips in a pout. “Well, why couldn’t you use canned beef broth?”
I took a deep breath through my nostrils and let it out slowly. “Because it wouldn’t taste right,” I said. The lady in the front who lived in Vietnam for five years while working in the US consulate looked back at her and shook her head, “And anyone who really loved pho would know–it would taste awful.”
The woman waved her fingers and shrugged. “Well, I just want to know if there is any way I can make this soup quick and easy? I mean, I don’t have time to spend standing over a smelly pot of bones and skimming crap off of it all day. Is there any shortcut I can use?”
I nodded, and said, “Yes.”
She leaned forwards, her face lit with eagerness.
“How?” she asked, her pen at the ready to take notes.
“There is a way to get pho in about fifteen minutes.”
My regular students started to smirk, but the woman simply gritted her teeth and all but spat out, “How?”
I smiled sweetly and shrugged. “Go out to your favorite pho joint, plunk down about six bucks, and like magic, a bowl of pho appears before you in ten to fifteen minutes.”
She was not amused, but everyone else was.
Needless to say, I never saw her again. But that was okay.
I never made pho at home again, either, nor did I teach the class again. The comments all mentioned how much work it was to make pho, and how they were unlikely to do it at home.
That said, here is my recipe for it. After we move to Athens, I will probably take up making it again, since there is no pho restaurant within a two hour drive of our new home.
Start this recipe two nights before you mean to serve it.
5 pounds beef bones with marrow (soup bones)
5 pounds oxtails
1 pound flank steak
1 pound beef tendon (optional)
2 lg. onions, unpeeled, halved and studded with 4 cloves each
3 unpeeled shallots
1 4 piece ginger, unpeeled
8 star anise pods
1 cinnamon stick
4 medium parsnips, cut into 2 chunks
2 tsp. salt
1 pound beef sirloin
2 scallions, thinly sliced
¼ cup minced cilantro
2 medium onions, sliced paper thin
¼ cup chili sauce
1 pound ¼ wide rice sticks
½ cup fish sauce
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups fresh bean sprouts
3 Thai bird chilis, sliced thinly
2 limes cut into wedges
1 bunch fresh mint, stems removed
1 bunch Thai basil, stems removed
The night before you cook your pho, rinse the bones under cold running water, and soak overnight in a pot with enough water to cover in the fridge. (This will help the impurities to rise more quickly to the top of the stock and be skimmed away, which makes a prettier, clearer, tastier soup stock.)
The next morning, combine bones, oxtails, and flank steak in a large stockpot. Add COLD water to cover, and bring to a boil. Boil for ten minutes, then drain, rinsing the pot and the solid contents. Return the bones to the pot and add 6 quarts of water. Bring to a boil. Skim the scum that collects at the top of the pot, discarding it. Stir the bones at the bottom of the pot now and again to release more impurities. Skim the ugly stuff as it collects at the top of the pot. Continue until the foam ceases to rise. Add another three quarts of water, bring back to the boil and skim any remaining residue that rises. Turn down heat to the simmer.
Now that the stock is simmering, char the studded onions, shallots and ginger over a gas flame, or under your broiler until they darken and release their fragrance. Wrap onions, shallots, ginger and parsnips in cheesecloth and lower into the pot. Simmer for one hour.
Remove the flank steak from the pot. Reserve the meat, allowing the soup to simmer uncovered for at least four or five hours. Watch the liquid level: as it boils away, add fresh water to cover the bones.
For the last hour of simmering, add spices in a second cheesecloth bag. (If you like more spice flavor, add several hours before the stock is finished.
After stock has come to the desired strength, after at least seven to eight hours of simmering, strain and cool. Put into a covered container in the refrigerator overnight. It helps if you have a large refrigerator.
The Next Day:
Remove stock from refrigerator. Skim most of the solidified fat off the top. Strain back into clean stockpot and bring to a simmer.
Partially freeze the sirloin, then slice against the grain into paper thin slices: about 2X2 square would be a good size. Slice the flank steak as thin as possible. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the scallions and cilantro, and half the sliced onions. Set aside. Place the remaining sliced onions in a bowl and stir in chili sauce, set aside.
Soak the rice sticks in warm water for thirty minutes. Drain and set aside.
Add fish sauce to the simmering stock and bring to a boil.
In another pot, bring 4 quarts of water to boil. Drop in drained noodles, and immediately drain them. Divide the noodles among 4 large soup bowls and top them with the sliced meats. Ladle the broth directly over the meat in each bowl (this cooks the raw meat) and garnish with the scallion mixture and freshly ground pepper. Serve with the chili onions and other accompaniments, so each diner can customize their bowls as they see fit.
This serves four generously, or six less generously. This is meant to be a full, hearty meal.
The Quick Method:
Go to your favorite pho restaurant. Order your favorite type of pho. When it comes, eat it, and be happy. Pay the nice waitress, and wander off, full of beefy goodness with no smell of beef bones in your hair or clothes.
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