Winter is around the corner and so is the time of the year when soups become one of the most sought after comforters. What better time to slurp on the most popular noodle soup of the year—Pho, the national dish of Vietnam. Pronounced as 'fuh', this Vietnamese noodle soup topped the Google Food Trends Report 2016 as well as the YouTube videos search. The search keywords linked to the dish included recipe and how to make.
For the Vietnamese population, Pho is primarily served at breakfast, but it is fine if you just crave for a bowl of Pho for dinner. You can either try Pho po (made with beef), or Pho ga (with chicken). The traditional, and the wildly popular Pho po, is a steaming bowl of thin rice noodles, meat and veggies in a bowl of aromatic hot broth. The warm, beefy broth, with cooked noodles, sweet flavours of cinnamon, clove and star anise, and strong aroma of ginger and charred onion, topped with a generous mix of fresh herbs, chillies and a squeeze of lime, makes it the perfect dish for the cold season.
The name Pho is believed to be derived from the French pot au feu meaning pot on fire, which is a classic French beef stew with meat, vegetables and herbs left cooking on the fire for hours. The French-inspired name can be justified if you trace the origins of Pho. There are many stories on Pho which is said to have originated in 20th century Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. One of them connects the origins of Pho to the French presence in Vietnam. The French satiated their desires for steaks by slaughtering cows, which were traditionally seen by the Vietnamese as just farm animals, and not as food. The leftover meat and bones were sold to Hanoi butchers who had to find an elusive way of selling these off to the locals who hadn't yet developed a taste for beef. It is said that street vendors who were selling noodle soups saw a new opportunity to add some zing to the mundane soups. And then, Pho happened.
With all the ingredients that go into it, the soul of Pho is its broth—slowly simmered for hours with meat and bones. The Pho is always judged by its broth, so this is where you need to be cautious if you plan to try your hand at it in the kitchen. You know a good broth when you see it. A good broth is crystal clear. For the Pho bo, the flavours are brought in by long simmering of flank meat, oxtail, and bones which add to the juicy flavour. For Pho ga, an entire chicken is used. Then step in the aromatics—the powerful cinnamon and star anise, assisted by the subtle cloves. Roasted onions and ginger lend an appealing smokiness to the broth, while retaining the juiciness of the onions. They are generally charred over a grill or directly held over the flame. Don''t risk burning it, though. A few cooked meat pieces also make a component of the soup, though not a major ingredient. Top it with veggies of your choice and chopped Thai chilli peppers, cilantro and basil to elevate the aroma.
The last to go in are the sauces. Hoisin sauce, fish sauce and siracha are popularly used to add a punch to the sweet-sour broth. And a squeeze of lime just adds the final touch. If you are not one for the sauces, savour the intense broth before you throw the sauces in.
One thing that could hold you back from making Pho at home is the time needed to create the broth. For a good Pho, the beef bones have to be simmered for six to eight hours, or more if you want perfection. Gently simmering the broth for a long time gives time for the marrow and juices within the bones to ooze out and dissolve into the broth. Quick, hard boiling might kill the essence of the broth. You got to give it some time if you want to end up with a broth worth slurping to the last drop. Pho lovers are now turning to canned Pho broth and Pho stock cubes for a quick fix. These, however, do not do justice to the intense Pho. Without the broth, the Pho is just not Pho; it is just a bowl of watery stock with noodles and vegetables floating atop.