Noodles from ‘Nam
Apparently there’s such a thing as “Eat Your Noodles Day” and that day, as it happens, was this week. It’s a fairly unconvincing food day actually to get much take up, but does at least give us an excuse to enjoy some noodle based food. So, I decided to use this week to make my favourite noodle dish, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup phở bò.
Noodle soups are popular throughout East and South Asia, from Indonesian ayam to Japanese ramen to the nam ngiao of Thailand, but nowhere is it more of an integral part of a nation’s cultural identity than the phở of Vietnam.
Modern Vietnam is one of the fastest growing, most vibrant countries in the world, but its history has often been a turbulent one. Years of repelling invasions and occupations from the Chinese, French, Japanese and, most recently and most widely known in the western world, America’s intervention in the war between the North and South have made their mark on the nation’s psyche and its cuisine.
Vietnam is a nation where the modernity of rapid economic growth mixes with deep rooted traditions and their food also combines the modern and the traditional. The local landscape and agriculture in a country that is mostly coast, rivers and wetlands inform a diet that draws heavily on seafood and rice. Meanwhile the influence of all of those invaders brought external food influences, so the French taste for bread and cheese makes these more common in Vietnam than any of its neighbours. Indeed, the Vietnamese breakfast favourite, a bánh mì trứng ổp lểt, is essentially an omelette baguette. On top of that there is a great deal of regional variation, with the phở enjoyed in the Northern capital Hanoi different from that prepared in the major Southern city Saigon, while Hue, the old imperial city in the centre of the country, has its own noodle soup favourite: the bún bò huể.
Much of the best Vietnamese food has traditionally been street food and even the better sit down restaurants in Hanoi serve an upscale variant on traditional street trader favourites. It is amongst this type of food that phở
can be found.
In Camilla Gibb’s 2010 novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement, which tells of the relationship between an itinerant phở trader and the radical art movement of the title, the soup is viewed in almost religious terms and perceived as representing the nation’s past:
“The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the nation’s heart, that phở was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef that the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bifteak and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hủng’s Uncle Chiển explained to him long ago.
“‘We’re a clever people,’ his uncle had said. ‘We took the best the occupiers had to offer and made it our own. Fish sauce is the key – in matters of soup and well beyond. Even romance, some people say.’
“It was only with the painful partitioning of the country in 1954 that phở went south; the million who fled communism held the taste of home in their mouths, the recipe in their hearts, but their eyes grew big in the markets of Saigon and they began to adulterate the recipe with imported herbs and vegetables.”
Hủng, Gibb’s aging phở-maestro insists on pursuing the humble, simple flavours of Hanoi, without the green garnishes or bean sprouts that have become common accompaniments served alongside the noodle soup dish itself. For my version of the South East Asian country’s national soup, though, I chose to take more of a wider influence of ingredients, following a recipe in Uyen Luu’s My Vietnamese Kitchen. Luu was born in Saigon, but her family moved to London after the war and started cooking Vietnamese food in England. Her recipe, then, is a version of the traditional favourite that enjoys the abundant possible ingredients available over here.
While the exodus that followed the American War in the 60s and 70s brought Vietnamese food to the wider world, it is only in the last few years that it is appearing more and more throughout Britain. We have now reached a stage when our not very large local supermarket sells a “phở kit” to help you easily make your own, as well as a much greater variety of global herbs, spices and vegetables. Luu’s recipe contains 35 possible ingredients, some of which remain fairly unusual when it comes to available food in this country. Nevertheless, I managed to get hold of everything but cassia bark, for which I substituted cinnamon sticks, and daikon, for which I used a white radish.
It is the balance of this large variety of ingredients that is crucial to successful Vietnamese cooking. Luu refers to “the yin and yang ideology in combining ingredients”, suggesting how “a soup with hearty ginger to warm up the body is contrasted with refreshing, cool leaves to bring a sense of concord.” In the book’s foreword famous French chef Raymond Blanc draws attention to this with regard to the noodle soup: “I relish the aroma of a steaming bowl of phở, with its notes of star anise, coriander seeds, hints of cinnamon and cloves, and fresh, fruity notes of herbs and citrus. The warmth of the broth is complemented perfectly by the bite of the noodles.”
It is important, then, to get both the broth and the noodles right. To begin with the former, Luu recommends using quite a variety of different cuts and pieces of the bò in phở bò, the beef that the French got the Vietnamese into eating. For Luu, the broth requires a bone full of marrow, a big chunk of beef shin or flank and chopped oxtail. Fortunately, as I mentioned a few months back, it’s increasingly easy to get cheaper cuts of meat and bones and marrow in the supermarket, so this actually presented no problem for me. The slow simmering of the broth for hours through the afternoon allowed for all the flavour in the bones and marrow and beef pieces to give a rich flavour to the broth. After simmering the meat in a chicken stock, the various spices, charred onion and ginger can then be added and this variety of flavours can infuse to give the broth the balance of different flavours required.
The next element is the noodles. “Using the right noodles is very important,” Luu writes, “It is essential to use bánh phở or hủ tiểu flat noodles (also called “ho fun”). There should be plenty of noodles in the bowl but these must be submerged in the broth – only garnishes are placed on top.” Actual Vietnamese bánh phở
are fairly hard to get hold of, but the Chinese flat rice noodles that first brought noodle soups into Vietnam, ho fun or shahe fen, are much the same and would be an appropriate fit. So, I acquired some of these and prepared them ready to assemble the final soup.
As both Luu and Gibb’s fictional street cook point out, there is an important order to serving your phở. Once my noodles were complete, I put them into the soup bowl before layering slices of the cooked beef on top. After this Luu suggests adding a mix of red onion, spring onion and coriander leaves. Finally the broth that had been slowly infusing with flavour all afternoon, and now has the seasoning of fish sauce that we fortunately now know Professor Plum can deal with, could be ladled over the top. Before that, though, Luu has one more final piece of advice and one further cut of meat, “to make it special”. She suggests adding slices of uncooked sirloin steak on top of the rest just before pouring the broth over, the heat of the beef broth will then cook this to juicy perfection. This I did, before serving the phở alongside garnishes of lime wedges, birds eye chilli, coriander, thai sweet basil and Hủng’s hated beansprouts.
If there is a specific order to preparing and serving phở then there is equally a right way to eat it. Along with the recipe itself, Luu, whose book is subtitled “Recipes and stories to bring Vietnamese food to life on your plate”, devotes a whole page to how to eat phở like the Vietnamese. “Breathe in the beautiful scented broth and taste it, unspoiled by condiments,” she writes, “Next, squeeze on some lemon or lime juice and add your favourite condiments and garnishes. Mix with chopsticks and a spoon. Pile the ingredients onto your spoon and slurp away, bringing the bowl to your mouth and drinking every last sip of broth.”
We followed Luu’s processes to the letter and were indeed rewarded with a rich mix of warming and invigorating flavours. A proper Asian soup spoon would, however, have been useful at this stage. Nonetheless the phở was deeply pleasing and well worth the time allowed for the broth to brew and the many ingredients held in balance. Whether it truly is all of Vietnam in a bowl is debatable, but it did feel evocative of the country’s complex past and intriguing present.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I’m not a big fan of aniseed flavours; when the broth was cooking it smelt very strongly of aniseed, but actually in the finished dish is was barely noticeable. We still have some broth left, which we should put to good use.