Monday, March 12, 2007
Anyone that knows me, understands that I go through multiple phases of interests. I might be into a certain kind of music for a few months, and suddenly jump into something completely different. I might like photography for a few weeks, but then fall into a pattern of hanging out at bookstores. And of course, food applies very well to this pattern. Last weekend, after a long two-month date with Santouka's delicious shio ramen, I fell back into the land of Vietnam's traditional beef noodle dish, pho (pronounced 'fuh', not 'fo' as in 'mofo').
Out of nowhere, after finishing a bowl of pho from Saigon Flavor, I decided to cook my own bowl of pho. When I eat pho, I always order a small bowl of soup - devoid of the blood that leaks from the rare beef (tai), the green onions/cilantros/onions and from the flour washoff from the dried rice noodles. I never taint my soup with Sriracha hot sauce or hoisin sauce. The result is a beautiful brown broth that is very sweet and aromatic from the usage of cinnamon, cloves and anise. Next time you try pho, order a bowl of soup on the side and you'll know that it tastes a lot different from the bowl of pho made to order. I had tried Golden Deli/Saigon Flavor's soup so many times that I have it branded in my palate.
I headed over to the Shun Fat market on Valley/San Gabriel which is joined by several eateries, boba cafe, random music stores and clothing I hope J never dares to sport, even on Halloween. With a list of ingredients I had compiled thru a vigorous search on the internet in my hand, I walked like a madman thru the market. First, the beef bones - the mother ingredient. I asked the butcher what I should use and he pointed me to the meat section with bones pre-chopped in bags. For my 14 quart pot, I needed at least 8 lbs of beef bones and went for 10 lbs. Many of the websites recommended using shin, leg and oxtail bones - but no neck bones because it's too fatty. When looking for bones, try and grab the bones that expose a lot of marrow. I then went for the spices, noodles and fixings such as bean sprouts, thai basil, limes and meat. I don't care for rare steak (tai), so I grabbed some beef tendon balls (bo vien). I was ready to go. I waited in line and I noticed a lady behind me staring at my groceries. I love when people look at the things you're buying - it's like they are trying to figure out who you are. Goes well with the famous quote... "Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are." It's a good thing I didn't have things like beer, hershey syrup, a banana and vaseline. Anyway, the lady asked me:
Lady with the Staring Problem: "You like to cook?"
Lady with the Staring Problem: "You're making pho aren't you?"
Lady with the Staring Problem: "It's a lot of trouble. You might as well go and buy a bowl."
Me: "I know. I just wanna try."
I barrelled down the freeway, more excited than a kid discovering his first porno video. I couldn't wait to make the pho. Keep in mind that this is my first attempt at pho, but I'll still provide a rough draft of ingredients (adjust your pho to your own liking):
14-qt pot (feeds around 8-10 hungry homies)
10 lbs. of beef bones (leg/shin/oxtail bones - more marrow the better)
beef balls or flank steak
5-6" piece of cinnamon stick
8 star anise
1 tblsp. of black peppercorns
1 tblsp. of coriander seeds
spices (cinnamon stick, cloves, star anise, black peppercorns, coriander seeds)
5-6" piece of ginger
8-1o tblsp. fish sauce
2- 2" pieces of rock candy sugar
2 large onions (the softball size)
MSG - yes, MSG. you have to have it for this dish. Add 1/2 a tablespoon - that's all you'll need.
fresh rice noodles (i like the 'Kim Tar' vacuum-sealed brand with the pagoda on it)
fixings: bean sprouts, limes, green chili pepper, thai basil, Sriracha hot sauce and Hoisin sauce
(1) First, add the bones into your pot filled with cold water and turn heat on high. Once it boils, let it boil vigorously for another 5 minutes. This process removes impurities in the bones and creates a raft of crap. Dump the water and rinse the bones in warm water, using tongs. Set bones back into pot, and again, bring water to a vigorous boil.
(2) While the water is boiling, use some tongs and char the onions and ginger over the stove. Char it for a good 5-7 minutes so that the onion becomes soft and flavors are released. Rinse the onion under warm water to remove the charred parts. Do the same thing w/ the piece of ginger, rinse it and then take a knife and give it a good whack to release more flavor.
(3) Once the water has reached a boil, toss in the onion, ginger, rock sugar, spices and fish sauce. Let it cook on SIMMER for at least 6 hours. Some recipes will tell you it's done in 2 hours - no way. It takes way longer than that to fully separate the marrow from the bones.
(4) After 6 hours, give it a taste and adjust accordingly. If you want it saltier, use salt and fish sauce. Sweeter, add small pieces of rock candy sugar. If it's too salty or sweet, start over by adding a little bit of water. The measurements given are for a starting ground. I found myself adding nearly double the amount of fish sauce and even more rock sugar. I even threw in a small piece of cinnamon and extra anise.
(5) Once the pho is ready, boil another pot of water. Make sure you soak your fresh pack of rice noodles in cold water for at least 15 minutes to 'wake' them up. Add the noodles to the boiling pot for no more than 8 seconds. Take it out and place in bowl.
(6) Serve with beef balls, fixings and hot/hoisin sauce.
So was it worth the 10+ hours of work? Most definitely. Pho may sound 'easy', but it's truly a form of art. Like with my Chinese beef noodle soup, which I invested nearly a year in improving it, I didn't expect my pho to come out perfect. It was very good, very aromatic and definitely edible... but something was missing. I had J and my friend MK come over to try it. They liked it a lot but also agreed something was missing. Maybe I should serve them pho on very sticky tables, play random Vietnamese music and have the hot sauce/hoisin bottles right on the table. What would I do differently? I think I will roast the bones in the oven with oil until they are browned. Same thing with the onions. Toasting the cloves and anise also helps wake up the flavors. I would also use less cloves because they are very strong. And I will most definitely add another 2 hours to the simmering process. I will be back soon with Pho Round 2 very soon. As always, thank you for reading.
Please checkout Guilty Carnivore's version of pho. This Portland-native has a great blog and helped me out with the pho recipe. Thanks again GC.