I love cooking and developing my own recipes, but man, do I suck at writing them. My recipes are usually super long and over-explained. And that's exactly what this is. Recipes will typically tell you the 'how' but not often the 'why'. I like getting into why you would want to cook a certain way over another.
This time I'm getting into 'pho ga', a Vietnamese chicken and rice noodle soup. Pho is actually really simple to make, but I wanted to breakdown what I've learned from my mom, and many iterations of trying to replicate her version. I wouldn't say this recipe is traditional or authentic. I'd just say it's good. Having eaten pho a dozen times and a dozen different ways, all over Vietnam, I can only say there are good and bad preparations of this dish, but no official one that rules them all.
By the way, this isn't a beginner's guide to pho. It assumes you already know what pho is, that you've had it a few times and actually like it, and that maybe you want to try making it at home yourself. You can try following the recipe exactly, but I suggest reading it, and using whatever you feel was worth taking away from this towards your own way of preparation.
For a soup dish like pho, precision isn't a priority. It's more about feeling and knowing than quantifying and measuring. That's why this ingredients list is fairly rough, but guidelines will be given on amounts along the way.
- 1 whole yellow-skin chicken (Rhode Island Red), 6 to 7 lbs
- 2 yellow onions, medium sized
- 2 knobs of ginger root, about the size of your palm
- 5 whole star anise pods
- 5 cloves
- 3 black cardamom pods
- 3 cassia cinnamon bark
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp coriander
- 24 oz clam juice
- 2 nuggets rock sugar, roughly 1 inch OR 2 tbl sugar
- rice noodles
TOPPINGS & CONDIMENTS
- 1 bunch thai basil
- 1 lb bean sprouts
- 1 bunch sawtooth coriander
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 bunch green onions
- 1 red onion, medium sized
- 2 jalapenoes
- 2 lemons OR limes
- pickled onions (see below for recipe)
- hoisin sauce
- fish sauce
POACHING THE CHICKEN & PREPARING THE BROTH
This is the single most important ingredient. It's the critical difference between mediocre restaurant pho and heavenly homemade pho.
Look for chickens that have a dark yellow skin (don't confuse it with rooster or stewing hen). They have firmer textured meat and bouncier skin, and are traditionally used for poached chicken dishes such as Pho Ga and Hainan Chicken. They're difficult to source outside of Asian supermarkets, but unless you just can't help it, don't substitute this for an industrial Foster Farms chicken--it just doesn't work. It's really hard to explain why unless you've had experience cooking and tasting both, but if you compromise on this first step, you've compromised the whole dish.
Read more about the unique breed of chicken here.
Rub the chicken and chicken feet with salt and rinse under cold water. (If you have table salt you've always wanted to get rid of, now's a good time to make use of it.) Honestly, I'm not sure what this step does; my mom says it helps to clean the meat. I don't argue with my mom, and neither should you.
Place the chicken in a large stock pot, and cover it with cold water until it's submerged by 2 inches beneath the water level. Place the pot over high heat. Once it reaches a boil, cover the pot with a lid, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, pull the chicken from the liquid, and rinse it thoroughly under cold water to tighten the skin. This helps keep the skin adhered to the meat when slicing.
Save the liquid and set it aside--this is your broth.
Place the chicken on a plate and wrap the entire thing up tight with plastic. Park in the fridge and allow to sit for at least an hour. This traps heat and moisture. The chicken will continue to cook gently under the plastic and eventually cools down without losing any moisture, yielding perfectly cooked chicken with super tender meat.
Once the chicken is cooled to the touch, separate the meat from the bone, and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices. Wrap the meat, and keep cool until service. Add the bones and head back into the broth.
Chicken feet is the secret ingredient for a collagen-rich broth. It helps the broth become a next level slurp-til-the-last-drop soup.
Clean the feet with salt the same way as the chicken, and add it to the broth. Bring the broth back to a simmer.
BURNT GINGER & ONION
Charred ginger and onions give pho its distinct look and smell. The darker the char, the darker and more bitter the broth. I like mine really dark.
Slice the ginger and onions length-wise at a thickness of 1/2 inch. Place under the broiler and allow to char. This can be done on the grill for better results.
When the ginger and onion have charred and blackened on one side, flip it over an repeat on the other side. Take your time to develop the char slowly and evenly, otherwise you could end up with ash which means you've taken it too far.
Once they've charred fully, add them, along with any purged liquid, to the broth.
Daikon radish helps sweeten the broth, but too much and it can be overpowering. This is optional, as the broth will still taste very much like pho with or without it, but I like the flavor it lends, and since it soaks the broth up like a sponge, it's also a nice treat at the end.
Peel and cut the radish into 1-inch rounds. For a pot this size, I added three 1-inch pieces of daikon.
The spices commonly used for pho are star anise, cassia cinnamon, black cardamom, clove, fennel, and coriander.
Toast the spices in a dry pan on high heat and stir occasionally with wooden chopsticks to keep them from burning. You'll know the spices are ready when the pan starts to smoke and you can smell the aroma exuding from the spices. Once there, add the spices to the broth.
LET IT SIMMER
At this point, the broth should look like this:
Add water in about the amount equal to 1/2 of what's already in the pot. Eyeballing this is fine. Bring the broth back to a simmer.
For the next 20 minutes, occasionally skim the soup of any foam or particulates that float to the top. Discard this stuff; it makes the stock cloudy. Once the broth is clear, cover with parchment or wax paper, like so:
This allows the liquid to concentrate through evaporation while keeping the ingredients submerged. There's a proper French word for this shape of paper that I don't know.
Let the broth simmer for 4 to 6 hours. A bubble should creep up every 10 seconds or so, but it shouldn't be constant. The flavors are deeper and more well-rounded the longer it sits, but also less punctuated. I've found that 4 hours is optimal.
FINISHING THE BROTH
After 4 to 6 hours have passed, strain the broth through a fine mesh colander, and prepare for the finishing touches. Discard everything in the colander except for the daikon and chicken head (for nibbling on later).
The picture doesn't tell much, but that's clam juice. If you're using fresh clams from the market, cover them with cold water, then bring them to a boil until they open, and release their juice. Then, strain the liquid through a fine mesh cloth to get rid of any sand. You should have enough to yield 1/4 of the final amount of broth.
Canned clam juice is fine for this too.
Natural MSG. I learned this trick from a Vietnamese cook when I was working at Google. We didn't allow MSG to be added to our cooking, so clam juice was his workaround. Not only did it provide that much needed umami bomb, it also gave the broth a very nuanced ocean sweetness that complimented the chicken.
SALT - Seasoning to taste can be difficult if you don't cook often, but a reference always helps. In this case, we're all familiar with the saltiness of instant noodle soup. Get the broth to just below that level of saltiness.
SWEETNESS - The daikon and clams should have sweetened the broth significantly, but you'll need more to round out that soup.
What do I mean by 'rounding out'? Well, after seasoning with salt, taste the soup. You'll notice that you can definitely taste everything--the chicken, the spices, the salt--but those flavors peak on the onset and diffuse very quickly. This sensation on your tastebuds will expire after a couple spoonfuls. A little bit is fine, but you won't enjoy a whole bowl of this, and you'll be wondering why your guests have finished all of their noodles, yet still have a bowl full of soup.
Adding sweetness will round out the spike in flavors, spreading them more evenly across the palate and for an extended period of time. This prevents palate fatigue. In very much the same way, salt is used to round out the sweetness of pastries and desserts.
For pho, try to use rock sugar if you can get it. It sweetens the broth without adding any flavor. Pure granulated sugar will work as a substitute.
The amount you should add to the broth is about 2 tablespoons, if using granulated sugar, or 2 small nuggets of rock sugar of about the same weight. Stir into the broth until it's fully dissolved.
Rock Sugar vs. Granulated Sugar. If you're really curious of the difference, try brewing a cup of tea with white sugar, and another cup with the same weight of rock sugar. You'll notice the granulated sugar takes over the flavor of the tea, while rock sugar only makes the tea sweeter. To simplify, granulated sugar tastes like sugar. Rock sugar tastes like the essence of sweetness.
There are three types of rice noodles for pho, each varying in their degree of freshness. I'm honestly not partial to any particular kind. They're all different, but not necessarily better or worse than the other.
These are found in the dry section with varying thickness and size. Nowadays, you can get this noodle at Safeway, though I can't speak on its quality.
Preparation - Be sure to discard all of the broken noodles and crumbs in the packet. Cooking times will vary depending on the brand and thickness, so follow the instructions on the packet. The advantage of this noodle is that it can be rinsed in cold water after cooking, and stored for later. When reheating, microwave the noodles for 1 minute per serving.
Texture - al dente, but the most brittle of all the noodles.
Absorption Level - medium.
Shelf-Life - virtually indefinite.
These can be found vacuum-sealed in the refrigerated section, but are harder to come by than the dry variety. They're dry noodles that have been slightly hydrated to speed up the cooking process.
Preparation - quickly blanch in boiling water using a noodle basket or colander. Pull it out as soon as the tangles wilt to become noodles--about 5 seconds. Serve with broth immediately.
Texture - chewy, but softens up quickly over time.
Absorption Level - very high.
Shelf-Life - about a month, refrigerated.
Because of their short shelf-life, these are the hardest to find, and are generally sold at room temperature at Asian markets. When refrigerated, they become brittle, so make sure to separate them before refrigerating, or else they will break into little, unappetizing pieces.
Preparation - Gently separate the noodles with your hands so that they aren't so stuck together. Dunk the noodles in hot (but not boiling) water to rinse off the oil, and warm them through--about 5 seconds. Serve with broth immediately.
Texture - soft and delicate, but not soggy; tender all the way through.
Absorption Level - very low.
Shelf-Life - 2 days at room temperature. 1 week, refrigerated.
Pickled onions are served at the table and meant to be eaten on the side, but they can also be added to the bowl for an extra punch.
- 1 medium-sized white onion - 1/4 inch julienne
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
Whisk the sugar, salt, water, and vinegar together until the sugar and salt are completely dissolved. Add the julienne onions, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
These ingredients should be as fresh as possible, and just require a rinse and some simple knife work:
- thai basil
- bean sprouts
- culantro (sawtooth coriander)
- cilantro, rough chopped
- green onion, chopped
- red onion, sliced thin
- jalapenoes, sliced into coins
- lemons OR limes, cut into wedges
Lemons or Limes? Actually, in Vietnam they use unripened calamansi (before their flesh turns orange), and neither lemons or limes accurately mimic that flavor. Calamansi isn't readily available in the states, so use whichever you like. Personally, I prefer lemons for pho because it adds acidity without taking it over with citrus notes, but for pretty much every other Vietnamese dish that requires a citric acid, I prefer limes.
FISH SAUCE - Three Crabs is my favorite brand because it's the most rich in umami despite it being artificial, and that it kind of...leaves a stinky taste in your mouth. If that's problematic for you, go with Red Boat. It's a very high quality fish sauce, that's 100% natural. Add fish sauce table side, not while cooking. Heating fish sauce for an extended amount of time dissipates its fermented qualities, which defeats the purpose.
Recommended serving size : 1 tsp
HOISIN SAUCE - Some enthusiasts will tell you to stay away from this completely, but I like a little bit in my pho. It's made from some of the same spices that's used in the pho broth, and it helps bring out their flavor even more. Too much, however, and it'll ruin all the hard work you put into carefully balancing the broth.
Recommended serving size : 1 tbsp
SRIRACHA - If you're a Sriracha fiend, chill for once, and try the soup for what it is. Hopefully, you'll find that you don't even need it. Pho isn't supposed to be a very spicy dish anyway, and people who've only had pho in a restaurant tend to get into the habit of drowning their bowl in rooster sauce, likely because the pho wasn't good to begin with. Don't be that guy who eats pink pho.
Recommended serving size : 1 tsp
There's no perfect order in preparing a bowl of pho, but this is how it's done in my household:
- Blanch the rice noodles, and place them in a serving bowl.
- Add the chicken. A few slices of each of light and dark meat.
- Top with chopped green onion, cilantro, and thinly sliced red onion
- Pour the piping hot broth over the noodles to cover.
The hot broth will heat up the chicken and aromatize the onions and cilantro into the soup. The remaining sauce, condiments, and vegetables should be served on the table for use at the diner's discretion.
When you're all done, it should look like this!