Eric and I tend to travel like we eat out – rarely, if ever, duplicating the places we go. When we first moved to Chicago, we instituted The Restaurant Rule: one new restaurant every weekend. While we don’t follow this rule so religiously anymore (I could eat Urban Belly every weekend if Eric would let me), it gives you an idea of our philosophy on travel. That is, there are so many places to visit, we’d like to see them all before doubling back.
But, just as we have started doubling back on some of our favorite restaurants, I imagine it is almost time to start doubling back on our favorite destinations. Almost. And the first place I want to go back to? Vietnam. Between the amazing food and a culture so far from our own, I’ve never been so mesmerized.
I tried to take a cooking class while we were there. I thought I registered for a class, but as can be commonplace in Vietnam – or anywhere you don’t speak the language – we had a bit of a miscommunication. I woke up early and took a taxi to class, only to find that the kitchen was closed. Nonetheless, I found a fantastic Vietnamese cookbook when I got home. Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen makes Vietnamese food accessible without dumbing it down or “Westernizing” so it is unrecognizable. I’ve already made a number of dishes from this book, and they’ve all been delicious.
Perhaps one of the most recognized Vietnamese dishes is the classic soup, Pho. It generally comes in two varieties – Pho Bo, with Bo being the word for beef, and Pho Ga – ga = chicken. Pronounced fuh, Pho is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can eat it in between meals, on the street corner, sitting on child-size plastic stools. Anytime, anywhere, this soup is the shit. I was also happy to find out that some of the Pho I’ve had in Chicago tastes very similar to the versions we had on the street in Hanoi – authentic, indeed.
I made my beef stock before I decided I was going to make Pho, so I had to improvise a bit. There really is not much to Pho, so the broth is very important. To make mine a little more authentic, I simmered my stock with star anise and cinnamon and tossed in some fish sauce at the end. If you can, though, definitely make a fresh stock with Pho in mind.
Pho Bo (aka, Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)
adapted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen, recipe written as I made it
8 cups beef broth or stock
1 1/2-2 pounds dried banh pho noodles (at an Asian market, they’ll be labeled this way; at other markets, they’ll probably be called rice noodles)
1/2 pound flank steak, sliced into thin strips against the grain
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
salt and black pepper
Garlic chives or scallions
Warm the broth in a large pot. If you are not making the stock yourself, simmer chopped ginger, cinnamon, and star anise in it. Slice your onion and let is soak in cold water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. In a large pot, boil some water. When it is boiling, turn off the burner and submerge the rice noodles. Let them sit for approximately 15 minutes, or until they are soft. Drain immediately and rinse the noodles in cold water.
Meanwhile, heat some neutral oil in a pan and sear the steak. You want to keep it pretty rare because it will continue to cook in the broth when the soup is served. Prepare all the garnishes – chop the chives, wash the sprouts, thinly slice the Thai chiles – and BE CAREFUL – these guys are hot!
When you’re ready to serve, layer the ingredients in a bowl – rice noodles on the bottom, then the steak, then the onions. Then ladle the broth over the top, and garnish with herbs, bean sprouts, limes, and chiles.