The Gallivanting Gourmand
Greg Duncan
Greg Duncan
is a freelance writer based in the Montreal region. He is particularly keen about good food. In his day job, Greg is the executive director of the Quebec Community Newspapers Association.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 02.23.06


No need to go to a Pho House for a hot treat

When February's low light levels get you down and you are a stir crazy from avoiding the chilly grip of the Great Outdoors, a big bowl of noodles and broth is the cure. Nothing better then to slurp than Pho, a Vietnamese soup that heals and satisfies with all its wonderful ingredients.

Pho is best described as a meal in a bowl and the variations that abound provide opportunity for anyone to tailor their own version to suit ones taste.

At its most basic, a handful of rice noodles are adorned with crunchy veggies, some thinly sliced meat or shrimp perhaps, and a couple of ladles of piping clear beef or chicken broth.

At its most traditional and complex, the broth has been simmered over long periods and derives its flavor by coaxing all the goodness from beef shins and ox tails and a medley of exotic spices such as star anise and charred ginger.

"Pho houses" have been around for a number of years and the more adventurous already know of what I speak. At these Vietnamese eateries, windows are steamed up, tables are crowded and chins are wet.

Pho's popularity is bolstered by the fact that it is fast, delicious, and cheap, as any student near Chinatown or the student ghetto will attest to. Suburbanites can find this traditional soup at a variety of Vietnamese restaurants in their area. Each restaurant has its version on the theme and you can also find instant versions at most grocery stores in the ethnic food section.

Instant packaged versions offer little more than convenience and little in the way of authentic flavor, in my opinion. Pho can be so easy to make that it is worth the trouble of assembling the ingredients and making it yourself at home.

True, some exotic additions may be found only at an Asian market but decent versions can be made using items that are found in your average grocery. There was a day when rice noodles and five-spice powder were only found at Asian markets but now the larger chain stores are savvy enough to have them on hand.

Bean sprouts, cilantro, mint, basil, and fresh chili are no longer rare finds as Canada becomes increasingly ethno-cultural. On the other hand, if you are looking for miniature Thai eggplants then you still may have to travel. Use what you can find locally and use a good broth, as that's what makes Pho so good. The additions are only limited by your imagination. If you have time to make a good homemade beef or chicken broth, then do so.

The version provided here uses canned broth as many hours and many bones are required for a more complex version and I'm trying to save you time. You'll thank me Pho sure.

Easy Vietnamese Pho

2 oz (60g) dried rice stick noodles
4 cups canned beef or chicken stock
1/2 onion-finely chopped
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons Hoisin sauce
1-tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2-teaspoon five-spice powder
1-cup bean sprouts
1 scallion (spring onion)-thinly sliced
5 oz (150g) very thinly sliced bite-sized lean beef or chicken
1-tablespoon lemon or lime juice
Fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves and strips of fresh red chili, to garnish

Soak the noodles in boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. Place the stock, onion, ginger, Hoisin and fish sauce, black pepper, and five-spice powder in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer over a medium heat for 10 minutes.

Place equal amounts of the noodles into two soup bowls. Place equal amounts of the sprouts, scallion, and beef or chicken slices on top of the noodles. Pour over the boiling stock to cover and allow to stand for a minute to poach (ensuring the beef or chicken is immersed). Serve the soup drizzled with lemon juice and garnished with cilantro leaves and chili strips on top.

Tip: To help cut the beef or chicken into paper-thin slices, place the meat in the freezer for about 30 minutes to firm up before slicing with a very sharp knife.