Flash in the Pan 

Vietnamese comfort food

Pho, a brothy Vietnamese rice noodle and beef soup, is usually mispronounced "faux." It's more like "fuuh," as if you were about to say a bad word and then realized you were in mixed company. However you pronounce it, this addictive dish of steaming comfort food is grabbing the world by the bowls.

Pho is widely assumed to be a twist on the French feu, meaning fireas in pot-au-feu, or "pot on the fire," a soup that influenced pho during France's colonization of Vietnam. It could also be derived from the Chinese fun, meaning noodle.

Either way, pho has good etymology. The benefits of fun are self explanatory, while its fiery nature makes pho ideal summertime food because it makes you sweat, which cools you down. The same warming effect is welcome in winter too. Or when it's raining. Or at night. Or in the morning.

And for lunch, when you can't decide between soup, salad and pasta, you can choose pho, and get it all in the same bowl. A defining characteristic of the modern, global pho-nomenon is the fragrant and often whopping side salads with which pho is served. These salads usually consist of a pile of bean sprouts, topped with one or more varieties of basil, and typically cilantro, lime wedges and sliced jalapeños. You might also find minced garlic, chopped scallions, and an obscure southeast Asian herb called razor leaf.

Some purists from northern Vietnam, the birthplace of pho, consider the salad-in-your-soup thing something of a pho pas, since the practice was introduced when the dish migrated south. Another post-Hanoi improvement has been a growing body of condiments like hoisin sauce, spicy vinegar, chili sauce, chili powder and fish sauce, all of which are served in a table-top condiment caddy alongside soup and salad.

After pupating in Saigon for a spell, pho spread to nearby countries like Thailand (where it's called guoi tiao, or "noodle soup"). From there, it migrated with the Vietnamese diaspora, incorporating local ingredients wherever it landed—most notably the jalapeño pepper in North America. Many American pho houses, aka Vietnamese restaurants, have also latched onto Western humor, with names like "Pho King" and "What the Pho?" (proper pronunciation required for full comedic effect).

These restaurants generally have large menus featuring a bewildering array of dishes, some of which will be dead-ends. So unless you're experienced, go straight for the pho—either classic beef, which can include tripe, tendon, meatballs and slices of raw, tender steak that cook in your bowl at the table), or one of many similar soups that feature chicken, seafood, pork, duck or vegetables.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Here's a basic recipe for a traditional pho of beef flank (or some other tough cut). Those who want different meats or vegetarian options can modify accordingly; daikon is often used to make vegetarian pho broth.

Parboil some beef bones for 10 minutes to release a shocking amount of scum and particles, then dump that water, rinse the bones in hot water and put them back in the pot with 6 quarts of clean water. We're going for a clear, subtle broth here. Venison bones make great broth, too. I like to oven roast the bones before adding them to the pot, which adds a level of richness and reduces the need for scum removal.

Bring the water and bones to a simmer and turn the heat to the lowest setting. Add 8 star anise pods (either whole or in pieces), 1 tablespoon cardamom pods, a 3-inch cinnamon stick, 6 cloves, 4 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon salt, a 12/32-cup of sugar (optional, but typical) and 1 pound of tough red meat cut into 2-inch chunks. Ideally, isolate the cloves, anise and cardamom in cheesecloth or a food-safe mesh bag so they can be easily remove—done inadvertently chewed anise pod can overpower an otherwise splendid, nuanced meal.

Next, slowly cook 2 medium yellow onions, sliced in half, and a 4-inch piece of ginger, sliced lengthwise, over a flame or in a dry pan, until charred, blistered and fragrant. Add them to the stock.

When the meat is falling-apart tender—a matter of hours, depending on the cut of meat—remove the chunks with a slotted spoon, disturbing the broth as little as possible so it will remain clear (don't ever stir it). Altogether the stock should simmer for at least three hours, with fat being carefully skimmed as it simmersor make the broth a day before serving and cool it in the fridge, which will cause the fat to solidify for easy removal.

Blanch some rice noodles for 20 seconds in boiling water. Rinse them in cold water to remove the starch, drain and set aside. The noodles should be just a little soft, like an undercooked al dente. Assemble side salads on a plate, and make sure your condiments are in place, including hoisin sauce, soy sauce and a red chili sauce such as the ubiquitous Sriracha.

Place noodles in bowls, but not too many, as they will absorb broth; about a third of a bowl of noodles is good. Add a chopped scallion and some cubes of meat to each bowl, atop the noodles, along with a shake or grind of black pepper and a tablespoon of soy sauce. Ladle broth into the bowls and serve.

To eat, start by tearing off the herb leaves and adding them to your bowl, along with a handful of sprouts and as many jalapeño slices as you dare—piquant heat being an essential part of the soup's warming effect. Adjust the flavor to your liking with condiments.

If you did it right, you'll need a handkerchief on hand—or plenty of napkins—as you sip and sweat your way through the bowl. Whether it gives you a wintertime running nose or summertime sweats, pho is a fiery and fun phorce to be reckoned with.

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