14 May 2011

Good Morning Vietnam

I know I know, the title is a cliche, but so appropriate, it's 6am in the morning, and I've just popped two onions and some ginger on the barbeque. It's not your usual hour to fire up the grill, but I have a hankering for a bowl of pho. It was my staple breakfast throughout Vietnam, and roasting the onion and ginger is the start to creating the divine stock that forms the basis of the soup.

I loved Vietnam - the crowds, the temples, the beaches, the sounds, even the crazy motorbike drivers (well maybe not), but everything else was fabulous. It's a country that overwhelms the senses, constant noise, vibrant colours and interesting smells, and the food (especially street food) is so much a part of the ambience. The food is prepared quickly, noisily, the colours are so bright they look photo-shopped, the smells are intoxicatingly heavenly and the tastes are a beautiful balance of salty, sweet, sour and spicy.

Walking the streets of Vietnam, I was fascinated by the women carrying the “don ganh” (or yoke), In the baskets attached they carried a portable kitchen and restaurant - in one basket a charcoal grill, with a large pot of simmering stock. In the other stacked bowls of noodles, fresh herbs, sliced meat, spoons, bowls and cups, and plastic stools. They stopped on demand and set up shop, delivering a fabulous tasteful bowl of Pho (a rich noodle soup, laced with fragrant herbs, and finished with lime and chillies to taste).

My favourite place to eat was the market - try it if you're ever in Vietnam. Head to the local market, sit yourself down on a rickety plastic stool, and get ready to have a taste experience you‘ll love. You’ll be encouraged (vigorously so) to try everything, and as cheap as it is why not, from freshly made spring rolls in Ho Chi Minh City, to Ban Xeo (steamed dumplings) in the historic and beautiful town of Hoi An, and the famous Pho (noodle soup) found all over Vietnam and cooked to perfection in Hanoi, the food will simply astound you.

Chicken Pho
(If you don't fancy making the stock from scratch, use 2 litres of a good quality stock, add 3 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon palm sugar, 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, 4 whole cloves and 1 bunch of chopped coriander)
If you have the time though, give it a go, the taste of the stock is phenomenal.
  • 2 brown or white onions, unpeeled
  • 10cm piece of ginger, unpeeled
  • 2 kilos whole chicken
  • 1.5 kilos chicken bones (backs or thighs)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted in a dry pan for 1 minute until fragrant
  • 1 small bunch coriander
  • 1 packet of rice noodles, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes
  • 2 cups shredded chicken (from the chicken cooked in the stock)
  • 4 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 1/3 cup chopped coriander
  • 3 cups beansprouts
  • small bunch of mint
  • small bunch of thai basil, leaves only
  • 3 small chillies, deseeded and sliced thinly
  • 3 limes, cut into wedges
Make the stock
  • Place the onions and ginger on the barbeque, or under the grill, and cook until skin is charred, turning frequently, this takes about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.
  • Rinse the cooled onions under warm running water, rubbing off the charred skin, cut in half. Peel the skin from the ginger and chop ginger in half lengthways
  • Rinse the chicken under cold water, using a big knife, make bone cuts every two inches on the chicken, this releases the bone marrow and adds flavour to the stock
  • To make a clear stock, parboil the chicken first - cover the whole chicken and chicken pieces with water in a stockpot, bring to the boil and boil for 5 minutes. Dump into the sink and rinse the chicken pieces and chicken.
  • Pop back into the pot and add 6 litres of water, and bring back to the boil, skim off any scum that floats to the top. Add the onions, ginger, salt, fish sauce, sugar, coriander seeds, cloves and coriander and cook uncovered for 30 minutes.  
  • Remove chicken, cool slightly, remove the breasts and chop off the legs. Cover and refrigerate. Put the carcass back into the pot with the bones and simmer stock gently for about 1 1/2 hours
  • Strain through a fine mesh sieve lined with muslin cloth and set aside
Putting the bowls together
  1. Bring the stock to the boil
  2. Place a portion of noodles on a mesh strainer and dunk the noodles in the stock for 20 seconds until they collapse. Pop into a bowl, top with the green onions, sprouts and coriander
  3. Place shredded chicken on top, and ladle the stock on top of the noodles
  4. Serve immediately and add the mint, thai basil, chillies and limes to taste