KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 2 — It’s that time of year again. Rains come at all hours of day and night without warning. Sometimes a quick flash, gone in minutes. Sometimes a seemingly never-ending pour. Little wonder everyone seems to be coming down with the sniffles.
There’s no better excuse to lean into a steaming bowl of soup, the heat clearing the nostrils and the aroma of slowly-boiled broth revitalising deadened taste buds. And perhaps there’s no better bowl for this task than one of pho, that famous Vietnamese dish of rice noodles in beef broth.
I remember a rainy day in Hanoi years ago when I first encountered this pho-nomenal dish. The skies had opened up without warning and I ran for the cover of the nearest shop. It wasn’t long before I forgot the state of my dripping clothes though: there was a delicious aroma in the air.
Dozens of other people were huddled together over steaming bowls, busily slurping noodles and tearing handfuls of fresh herbs to blanch in the broth between mouthfuls. My mouth watered. Whatever they were having, I wanted some too.
It didn’t take long before my bowl of pho arrived — the hot steam clouding my spectacles but not the beautiful sight before me: strands of silky noodles intertwined with pieces of cooked beef and raw (which cooked swifter than you’d imagine, sliced as thinly as they were). Every sip tasted better as I too learned to garnish my bowl with cilantro, mint and basil. Every mouthful a revelation.
This was my first bowl of pho ever, and it won’t be my last. And if you have some hours free on the weekend — and well you should, it’s the weekend, is it not? — why not make your own pho from scratch? Nothing will beat the experience of eating pho by the roadside in Hanoi, but at least we wouldn’t have to travel quite so far from home.
It is raining, after all.
HOMEMADE BEEF PHO
Making a pot of beef broth from scratch for pho may need some planning but is well worth your time. Two steps you shouldn’t skip are toasting the dry spices (cardamom, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, cinnamon and star anise) and charring the onions and ginger. These will add indispensable layers of aromatics to the broth, bringing out the best of its beefy flavour without it getting too strong.
Arguably the most enjoyable part of eating pho is garnishing your own bowl of pho the way you like it. Prepare a big platter of fresh herbs such as leafy bunches of cilantro, mint and Thai basil for guests to pick from. Saucers of sliced red onion, spring onion, chillies and limes, and a generous bowl of crunchy bean sprouts complete the picture.
1 tablespoon cardamom
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
5 star anise
1 whole red onion
1 whole white onion
1 whole ginger
5 litres water
2 kg beef knuckle (bones)
1 kg beef oxtail (for cooked meat)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt to taste
(d) Meat and noodles
250 g beef sirloin, sliced very thinly (as raw meat)
1 packet Vietnamese rice noodles
1 small bunch of cilantro
1 small bunch of mint leaves
1 small bunch of Thai basil
1 big handful of bean sprouts
3 red onions, finely sliced
3 stalks spring onions, finely sliced
3-4 chillies, sliced
3-4 limes, cut into halves
Using a non-stick pan, toast the dry spices (cardamom, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, cinnamon and star anise) until aromatic. Remove and set aside.
Turn the fire on the gas stove on high and roast the red onion, white onion and ginger until they begin to char. Turn them over individually so that they char evenly on all sides. Remove and set aside.
Fill a large pot with the 5 litres of water and bring to a boil. Add the beef knuckle (bones). Keep the pot on a roiling boil for 10-15 minutes before reducing to a simmer. Remove any scum using a fine mesh strainer. Keep the pot on a steady simmer and continue removing scum that floats to the surface.
Once all or most of the scum has been removed, add the charred onions and ginger, toasted spices, oxtail, fish sauce and salt. Simmer uncovered for 1 hour. Remove the cooked oxtail and set aside. Continue simmering for another 2 hours. Strain the broth into a fresh pot to remove the beef knuckle (bones) and the charred and toasted ingredients. Check the broth for taste and season further with fish sauce or salt if necessary.
Cut the cooked meat used to create the broth into medium-sized slices. Slice the raw beef sirloin into even thinner slices so they will cook quickly in the hot broth later. Blanch the Vietnamese rice noodles in boiling water for 30-45 seconds until cooked.
Fill the bowls with rice noodles and slices of both the cooked and raw beef. Ladle the broth into each bowl. Serve immediately as the hot broth will cook the thin slices of raw beef quickly. Allow everyone to customise their own bowl according to their taste with the fresh herbs and garnishings.
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