Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Story of Pho Hanoi- cultural ramblings

Pho Hanoi should be served in a ceramic bowl, porcelain spoon and bamboo chopsticks. Condiments are chili sauce, fresh cut red hot chilies, extra quality fish sauce, mint, coriander & lime. Any other condiments will spoil the clean rich taste of the beef stock. Below are photos of Pho from my home kitchen.

Every Vietnamese person thinks they are the connoisseurs of this iconic dish and they all have their own version of what is the perfect pho.
The origin of this dish is as illusive as the ingredients for its stock!
Sometimes during the last few hundred years the Cantonese dish ‘stewed beef noodle soup’ (nguu nhuc phan) found its way to Vietnam and metamorphosed into this unique dish: Pho Hanoi. Since then it has been spread far and wide becoming as dynamic as the history of Vietnam. Hanoi in the 50s had no beef supply on Mondays and Fridays, so chicken pho was invented, the pho connoisseurs were aghast at this new invention!  But young women liked it- it was more elegant in appearance and lighter in taste.
However Pho ingredients and its condiments keep on changing according to the cooks in different regions of Vietnam and overseas.
After millions of Vietnamese left Vietnam after 1975 Pho has been globalised and homogenised by the ready made “stock in a packet” with the universal flavour enhancer glutamate (MSG).
Pho Hanoi should be served in a ceramic bowl with a porcelain spoon and bamboo chopsticks. (ask me why this is, via my ‘ask me anything’ option).
The noodle should be soft, velvety and ‘aldente’ as the Italian’s say. The stock should be clear, of dark amber colour and natural tasting. The distinctive pho flavour can only be made with beef bones with marrow and cinnamon quills, big cloves (thao qua) and star anises. Then, thin slices of cooked brisket and tender rare beef fillet arranged beautifully ontop, sprinkled with finely chopped green shallots. Pho Hanoi, must be accompanied by only the freshest mint and coriander leaves,  extra quality fish sauce, slices of red hot chilli, freshly ground pepper, and wedges of lemon or lime.  Any other condiments will spoil the clean rich taste of the beef stock.
When the steamy bowl of Hanoi pho is brought out, the diners should use the porcelain spoon to taste the stock first then use their chopsticks to test the noodle and the meat separately before adding on any of the condiments.
Pho should be eaten immediately, before the noodles soak up the stock and they become ‘heavy’.
I have been experimenting with pho stock since coming to Australia in 1962.  We were all nostalgic for a bowl of pho, the essence of our country.I used the recipes from the two old cookery books which my mother gave me when I left Vietnam. In one of the books, “Lam Bep Kheo”  Mrs Van Dai used strips of sugarcane to line the stock pot before placing the blanched bones in.   In the other book, “Am thuc Tu tri” , cabbage or prawn heads were used in sweetening the stock. Other visitors in Australia from Vietnam tried to help me with tips and I tried them all. I tried to make stock with Sa sung (a dried marine worms), with minced up crab juice, with squid and prawn heads but none of these were satisfactory… it took me almost 40 years to discover how to cook the best pho stock. 
Last year for 5 weekends I cooked Pho to raise money for leukaemia children undergoing chemotherapy in a Hanoi hospital. It was over this time that I discovered how to make a perfect stock using the Cordon Bleu method of making rich brown stock.
I was transported back to my childhood in Hanoi when I tasted my perfect pho stock.  I clearly saw my mother bringing home a steamy bowl of pho from the “pho ganh” (portable pho stall) for my father when we had no left-overs from previous dinners to rehash for breakfast.
I could never believe that happiness can be so simple!

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