~ A journal entry by Chef Nam ~
I love Phở, chicken or beef, and I can eat almost every morning for breakfast. It’s also the first thing I eat when going back to Viết Nam. My family left Viết Nam when I was seven years old, and sixteen years passed before I returned. On my first trip back, I landed in Hanoi in the morning from an overnight flight from Copenhagen via Moscow in 1995. It was disorienting to disembark from the plane into the humid day, stepping into a country that I was both at once intensely familiar and also a distant memory. I went straight to a coffee shop with my large travel backpack, a noisy shoebox of a space where men were talking over coffee and the owner was dispensing bowl after bowl of Phở. I knew I am finally back in Viết Nam.
Bowls of Phở are comparable to Hamburgers or Smørrebrød of Viết Nam: they are incredibly popular, eaten every day by most of the population, young and old. In the morning in Hanoi or Saigon (HCMC), you will see commuters sitting astride their parked mopeds, slurping down a bowl before they continue on to work.
Every Phở place served the soup with a plate of garnishes: saw coriander, rice paddy herbs, sweet basil, slices of red chilli, beansprouts, lime wedges, and sometimes fried shallots or Chinese Doughnuts (You Tiao). The trick is to add a little bit of each as you eat your way through the bowl, but not dumping them in all at once. You want the herbs to maintain their fragrance, the bean sprouts to stay crunchy-it’s all about aroma and texture, and if you add too much too soon, you’ll end up with black herbs and soft sprouts, which defeats the whole purpose.
One of my favourite Phở spots for beef pho is Phở Le in Sài Gòn (HCMC). Everyone knows this place, and when I’m there I ordered the speciality, which is loaded with meat, including tripe, meatball and tendon.
Phở bò usually contains two or more cuts of beef, often cooked brisket and raw slices of the topside of beef, along with the tendon. But in North Viết Nam the soup only contains slices of raw beef and chopped spring onions. In Viết Nam, bowls of noodle soup are built from the bowl up-first the noodles, then the meat, chopped spring onions, with hot broth ladled over at the last minute and with the garnishes served alongside. This is especially important with phở bò because the beef is added to the bowl raw and the heat from the broth cooks it just enough.
Hoisin sauce and Sriracha hot chilli sauce often accompany bowls of phở bò, but they should never be added to the broth itself because they will ruin the delicate, beefy flavour. Instead, retrieve pieces of meat from the broth and drag them through the sauces just before eating. If you want a spicier broth, add more chilli slices.