Southeast Asian I: Vietnamese pho

Grainews

April 2022.

We are so fortunate in Canada to have arrivals from around the globe to teach us about seasoning our tables. Lucky for us, food is one of the best tools for welcoming people and sharing experiences. The foods of Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam – are worlds apart from what those of us of European extraction grew up with. Learning to utilize ingredients and tastes from across the globe will undoubtedly make us all better cooks and maybe even better global citizens.

Stocking our Vietnamese pantry has become easier since 1975-76, when Canada welcomed 6,500 of the many Vietnamese refugees who fled the region’s deteriorating conditions after the Vietnam War. A few years later, as the situation in Indochina worsened, Canada accepted 60,000 Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees. According to the 2016 Canadian Census, of over three million arrivals from South and Southeast Asia, over 240,000 Canadians claim Vietnamese origins.

Vietnamese food is dairy-free and subtly seasoned. In your Asian aisle or market, stock up on nuoc mam (fish sauce), a salty and pungent sauce derived from dried anchovies that serves as a salt condiment, like soy sauce in Chinese cooking. Store it in the fridge. Also buy dried rice noodles in several thicknesses, plus hot chili paste, ginger, star anise, fresh limes. Fresh herbs like mint, basil and cilantro can almost be thought of as greens, used by handfuls.

You may recall from a previous column that back in the day my boys looked forward to the early dismissal from school that we all called “noon dismal.” It wasn’t just busting loose from class that my sons relished. They also liked the associated field trip to the recycling depot, followed by lunch at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant.  That experience from an early age helped shape their wide tastes in food. Both my boys, now adults, love the slurpy soups and rice noodle dishes with the subtle-to-heated seasoning of Southeast Asia, in particular the coat of many colours that is Vietnamese pho. First we eat a bowl of soup, and then we can talk about other ways to season the pot.

North Vietnamese Pho

In situ in northern Vietnam, pho is traditionally made with beef, often slow-cooked tendon, for really beefy taste. But my boys and I fell in love with pho made with chicken, so here’s another chicken noodle soup for your cold-weather pantry. The broth is subtly seasoned with ginger, star anise and cinnamon. The soup’s internal garnishes are noodles, vegetables, and the protein can vary – here I use poached chicken. The rice noodles are best added the day you plan to eat the soup because they deconstruct if they sit in leftover broth overnight. If all you have is linguini, by all means swap it in, but the texture will be different. Don’t forget the table garnishes; they are crucial. Optionally make it more south Vietnamese by adding curry paste at the beginning, and coconut milk and peanut butter at the end. Serves 4

Broth:

2 quarts chicken stock

4 whole star anise

2 cinnamon sticks

oil for the pan

2 large onions, sliced

6-8 slices fresh ginger

1 head garlic, peeled

1-3 hot chiles, optional

Soup:

3 large chicken breasts, skinless and boneless

salt to taste

½ lb. medium-width dried rice noodles

3 small bok choy, quartered

3 large carrots, thinly sliced on the bias

1 cup chopped broccoli

1 cup chopped cauliflower

¼ cup nuam mam (fish sauce)

the juice of 2 lemons

Table garnishes:

lime wedges

hot chili paste

fresh cilantro leaves

fresh mint or Thai or holy basil leaves

mung bean sprouts

hoisin paste, optional

soy sauce, optional

Heat the stock with the star anise and cinnamon in a large pot. Lightly oil a sauté pan and heat it, then add half the sliced onion and all the ginger, garlic and optional chilies, and sauté until well browned. Transfer the aromatics to the poaching liquid. Cover and simmer for an hour. Strain and discard the solids.

Salt the chicken to taste, then add to the broth. Cover and poach at an active simmer until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Check for doneness, and cook additionally if not yet done. When the chicken is cooked through, remove, cube into bite-size pieces, cover with a ladle of broth, and keep warm.

Bring about 4 cups of water to a boil. Put the rice noodles into a large bowl and cover with the boiling water. Let stand for about 5 minutes, or until soft, pulling them apart as they soften. Drain.

While the noodles soften, add the vegetables to the broth and cover. Simmer until as tender as desired. Add the chicken, noodles, nuoc mam, lemon juice and salt to taste. Ladle into bowls. Pass around the table garnishes for each diner to add to taste.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

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