Rightfully or not so rightfully, one dish can represent an entire nation’s culinary characteristics. Stereotypical and close-minded a bit, yes, but ultimately with a degree of hidden truth, also a yes. Koreans and kimchi, Italians and spaghetti, Japanese and sushi, Mexico and burritos, England and spotted dick. For Vietnam, the one dish that sums it up is, unanimously, Pho. Quite easily, one of the best bowls of food in the world, pho is worthy of the alter it is lifted upon. Explaining in words pho’s flavorful majesty is challenging to say the least. I dare you to try. But one thing is abundantly certain. When the craving for a scrumptiously satisfying pho scratches you, the hold is all conquering and there is nothing, and I repeat, nothing, that can suppress nor redirect that desire. Food addiction in its most powerful format.
Pho is traditionally a rich beef-flavored soup with rice noodles. It is garnished with slices of raw beef, and served with a host of ingredients to customize the experience – peppers, bean sprouts, cilantro / basil, lime, sriracha, plum sauce, and more. This is pho in its simplest form. The profound taste of the broth is enough alone to ram down one’s gate of tastebuds. Beef bones are caramelized and roasted in the oven to bring out the best of its carnivorousness. The vegetable aromatics are also roasted in a similar manner, completely transforming the profiles of the onions and ginger. It is sinful how delicious a charring on a vegetable can be from the broiler. And the broth is further heightened with toasted spices of star anise, cinnamon, coriander seeds, and more. This pho broth is the foundation for light rice noodles, and the creation of how you want it dressed. For me, the combination of this broth with such assertive spiciness, sourness, sweetness, and acidity – from the limes, peppers, sriracha, etc – leaves my mouth in tingles.
This recipe is my version that uses chicken rather than beef. I still caramelize the entire chicken carcass (after baking it first and taking off the meat) in order to impart deep, roasted bone flavor. The chicken pho, while not as deep in richness as the beef version, is a healthy alternative and one that still packs a walloping punch of Vietnamese goodness.
Ingredients (serves 8):
For the broth:
- 2 cooked chicken carcasses, roasted and breast meat removed
- 3 onions, halved, skin on
- 2 finger lengths ginger
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4-8 star anise, whole
- 2 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon French clove, whole
- 2-3 tablespoon rock sugar
- 3-4 tablespoons fish sauce
- 15-25 cups of water
- 1 package rice noodles, somewhat thick and flat, sometimes called pho noodles
- Jalapeños, sliced
- Thai hot peppers, sliced
- Bean sprouts
- Thai basil
- Sriracha sauce
- Plum (hoisin) sauce
Roast the whole chickens the night before. Rub them down with salt, pepper and olive oil and bake at 375 for 45-60 minutes. Once cool, remove the chicken thighs and legs. Take the meat off the bone and save them for the pho. Also remove the chicken breasts and save them for other dishes.
When you’re ready to cook the pho, pre-heat the broiler on high. Place the chicken carcasses into the broiler for 10 minutes until nicely caramelized. Char is good. Afterward, place the chicken into the large pot.
Place the onion halves, with skin on, and ginger in a baking sheet. Pop into the broiler for 10 minutes. Transfer the charred onions to another plate and pop the ginger back into the broiler for another 5 minutes. Remove the top charred onion layers, and place them, along with the ginger, in the pot with the chicken.
Over low heat and in a saute pan, toast the star anise, cinnamon stick, coriander seeds, and whole French cloves for 5-10 minutes. Stir the spices around every 30 seconds to avoid burning. Place the mixture into a cheese cloth, or some other pouch, and add to the growing pot of chicken pho ingredients.
Cover the ingredients with water and add the rock sugar and fish sauce. Season aggressively with salt and pepper. Turn the heat up to high and bring it up to a boil. Once at a rolling boil, turn the heat to low and have it simmer for 2-3 hours. The aromatic spices, charred vegetables, and caramelized chicken carcasses marry into something wonderful. In the meantime, prepare the pho toppings of sliced peppers, bean sprouts, herbs, etc.
Strain the pho broth and discard the chicken carcasses, spices, and vegetables. They have served their purpose. Now, toss back in the chicken thigh meat that was previously removed the night before. Give the broth a taste. Readjust the seasonings – rock sugar, fish sauce, salt, pepper – as your tastebuds see fit.
Before dinner time, soak the rice noodles in water as the package indicates. Then dunk them into boiling water to quickly cook. To serve, add some noodles to a bowl, spoon over some pho broth, and top it all off as you please with sriracha, plum sauce, and all the other fixings.