I knew that leaving Brisbane for England would mean that my cravings for Vietnamese food was unlikely to be sated without a visit home. When I emailed my sister to remind her of the date that I was arriving in Australia, and asking her to arrange a family get-together for the following day, her response was to ask me what I wanted to eat. We decided that we would have goi cuon (transparent rice wraps) for lunch and then pho for dinner.
The entire time I was in Brisbane, I ate. I had breakfasts, brunches, lunches and dinners organised, visiting some old haunts, hanging out in newly married friend's houses and stuffing myself silly with my family's cooking. Um cooked everything she knew I liked, often all at the same time. Ba, too, joined in the cooking and made some of my favourite dishes. I ate the noodle soup of my region (bun nuoc leo) for dinner and breakfast, together with caramelised prawns, steamed crab and rice. On another day, I had banh xeo (crispy pork and prawn pancakes), spring rolls, more caramelised prawns and my mother's special deep fried chicken that she makes for the kids, but that I always end up eating. Um had bought a box of mangoes, and kept lamenting that the dragonfruit in my father's garden (which fruited in riotous abandon last year, right after I arrived in England) would not even flower while I was home. After finishing the main dishes, and while I still sat at the dining table nattering away to my siblings, Um would pull out a mango and start peeling it. I could not say no.
I am back in England again, in the cold, and contemplating what to do to celebrate tet this year. Last year, we were not settled and mostly friendless. This year, we are settled, and we have friends, and I would like to have a more noisy Tet. I love cooking for people, and because it's winter, I decided I would cook pho.
I have never in my almost 30 odd years cooked pho for myself. And I have lived away from home pretty much since I was 18. As a matter of fact, I do not cook all that much Vietnamese food. I tend to rely on my siblings and my mother for that. To ensure I do an okay job, I had to cook a trial batch, which is what I did last weekend.
First, I had to collect the ingredients. Most of the spices I have on hand. Our spice cupboard was magnificent in Brisbane, and it took about 6 months for the spice cupboard here to mimic the glory of the past, but it does. So I knew that I would have cinnamon, star anise, cloves and coriander seeds at home. I also had rice noodles from a previous stock up trip to the Chinese grocers. All I needed was the fresh stuff: bean sprouts, basil, coriander, spring onions, and limes. I knew I could not get the one herb that makes an average bowl of pho, better and a good bowl of pho, perfect: ngo rai. I don't know what ngo rai is in English. I've seen it referred to as Thai coriander (in Cairns, Queensland, which made me bristle with silly affront), thorny cilantro or perennial coriander. Oh, and the beef bones and beef to make up the rest of the soup.
Getting the beef bones was remarkably difficult. My partner had intended to do our grocery shopping at Sainsburys (an English supermarket) while I was at work, so I emailed him my list of ingredients that I would need. He was informed that Sainsburys are not permitted to sell meat on the bones, and that everything comes to them pre-packaged. I had forgotten to tell him that oxtail could be substituted for beef bones.
The next day, I went to Waitrose (another, slightly more upmarket, English supermarket - even the supermarkets in the UK are class structured. Shamefully, Waitrose is my favourite supermarket). I went to the butcher counter and asked if they had beef bones. I was told the same thing as my partner: that everything came to them pre-prepared and packaged. I asked for oxtail. The butcher counter guy looked at me apologetically and gestured towards the customer whom he had just served: I just sold my last one to him! I looked over at the other customer, and brief thoughts of violence occurred. I smiled at the butcher counter guy, and assured him it was okay.
I then went to an 'International Food Market and Halal Butcher'. Their meat counter was much more prosaic, and less surgical, than Waitrose's. When I asked for beef bones, the butcher said: Fish bones? No, I am a butcher! (My Aussie twang clearly lingers). I spoke more clearly and the butcher walked over to where large hunks of meat lay: Which one do you want? Surprised, I asked him if he had anything smaller. He looked at me strangely and picked up one of the smallest pieces and weighed it. Only one kilogram. Four pounds fifty. I looked uncertainly at him: the piece of meat was twice the diameter of the thickest part of my thigh. I said: Um, do you have anything smaller? You can have it for four pounds, he said. I was not concerned about the price; just what on earth I would do with a kilogram of beef bone. Okay, said I, but can you cut into maybe four smaller pieces? He quickly hacked at the meat, and it fell expertly into four large chunks: Like this? I thanked him and took away the meat.
At home, I used two of the chunks, and froze the other two, safe in the knowledge that if my first pho venture did not succeed, I had another two chunks with which to try again.
My pho recipe comes cribbed from the internet - matter of fact, it was how I found Wandering Chopsticks, when I googled 'pho recipe' more than a year ago. Mostly, I needed a recipe to double check what was in the broth. I knew that onion, ginger and star anise went in, but cinnamon, cloves and coriander seeds surprised me. Last time I ate at my brother in law's, I checked his broth: there were the cinnamon and the cloves. I tried to telephone my brother in law to ask him for tips, but he was not at home. I rang another sister instead, not for cooking tips as she is such a terrible cook she once burned chao, just to chat because I get despondent if I ring my family and come away having spoken to no one. The joy of a large family is that you just ring the next number and then the next, until someone answers.
Here is my recipe, although it is mostly Wandering Chopsticks', and I suspect she is a better cook than me. I think I have said on this blog before that I am a bad recipe follower. My recipes are imprecise, because I am. I substitute and I don't measure ingredients. And I don't know how much a pound or a quart is.
For the broth, you will need:-
Beef bones: I used about 500 gms for two people. Although my soup would have fed four. I suspect that if you cook this for more people, you just increase the water and the beef bones, but don't increase the other flavourings. I'll report back on that one, as I intend to cook pho for at least 15 people.
One surprisingly large onion. (Your onion does not have to surprise you with its largeness, but mine did me.)
Also, you can add garlic: half a clove is a good amount. Somewhat unusually, we were out of garlic at home, so none went into my stock.
A decent knob of ginger: about the length of your thumb and at least twice as thick.
One carrot: chopped into finger sized chunks.
One or two sticks of cinnamon (my stick was very long, so I just used one), a handful of star anise, some cloves and some coriander seeds: dry fry these before throwing into the stock.
A fry pan for dry-frying, a stock pot for cooking stock in, and another pot for parboiling.
To cook it:
Chop the carrot up first. Leave it wherever you chop it.
If you, like me, are not fortunate enough to have a gas cooker, prepare the onion and ginger by sticking it under the griller, almost touching the element. Leave it there while you do everything else, but remember to keep an eye on it, and perhaps ask your partner to turn off the smoke alarm. If you're using garlic, do the same with it as you do the onion and ginger.
Start boiling a lot of water. I initially used two litres (but ended up using much more). Throw the carrot into the water, and leave it well enough alone.
Wandering Chopsticks and Viet World Kitchen gave me a tip I had not heard of before: parboiling the beef bones, rinsing and then using in the stock. This is to get rid of impurities, so that one gets a nice clear soup. My mother used to make me stand at the pho stock pot, scooping out the muck as it rose to the surface. It was peaceful work, and I enjoyed it.
I followed this tip. And you know what? It works brilliantly. No muck to scoop off, so it meant I could wander away from the stock pot to read my book! I highly recommend parboiling the bones, for oh, maybe five minutes (until the meat goes white, and the water gets frothy) and then rinsing the bones quickly in warm water before throwing back into the stock pot.
I parboiled my bones in a separate pot, because I knew I would have plenty of time to do the dishes while the stock bubbled away. This meant I could have some water on the boil (with carrot!) and that I could just rinse and throw the bones straight into the water.
Then, dry fry all the spices and throw them into the stock pot too.
Check that the onion and ginger are nicely burned. If there are any too-burnt bits, peel them away, and then throw onion and ginger into the stock pot.
Let the whole mixture boil for a couple of minutes, turn the heat down and then do the dirty dishes (chopping board, parboil saucepan, breakfast/lunch and too many mugs of tea leftovers). Stir the stock, turn the heat down again, and wander away, preferably to read a good book (but not so good that you forget the stock).
I had a jug of boiled water ready at all times to top up the stock if it got too low, and also to refill my cups of tea while I read my book, but that's a less integral part of the recipe. Check the stock every now and then, and stir.
I perhaps boiled my stock on too high a temperature, as the water got dangerously low (it no longer covered the bones!) after about one and a half hours. After topping up, I turned the heat from mark 3, down to mark 2, and left it again for another hour. Even mark 2 was a little too high, so I turned it down to mark 1. Basically, it needs to simmer ever so gently. You don't want it just keeping warm, and you don't want it boiling. You want the water to burst occassionally with a bubble. Mark 1 worked for me.
All up, I let the stock simmer for about four hours. In the last hour, I prepared the fresh stuff to go into our bowls (rinse bean sprouts, basil and coriander, chop limes, thinly slice red onion and spring onions, arrange nicely on plate). My partner sliced a 250gm sirloin steak super thinly, because he's good at that sort of thing. I cooked the rice noodles last, using the same element that I had cooked the stock on. While I was rinsing the rice noodles, I moved the stock pot back to the element and let it boil over.
I have not bothered to tell you how to cook the rice noodles. Just follow the packet instructions.
Fill bowls with noodles - but don't overfill, because the noodles expand while you're eating.
The sliced beef is then cooked in a ladle held in the stock pot, and the soup is spooned into the noodle bowls.
Each person adds the herbs and sprouts as they wish. My family uses hoi sin sauce as the dipping and flavouring sauce. I am yet to find a brand of hoi sin sauce here that I like.
The verdict? My pho was a success. It was such a success, I forgot to take a photo of the finished product, with herbs and sprouts. My partner and I just dug right in. We ate it the following day for dinner, and it was still delicious.