Sunday, September 30, 2012

phở goodness sake

I am starting to understand how some Italians feel about lasagne. It is wonderful that the rest of the world loves their food so much and it may be acceptable when other cultures tweak the dish to suit local tastes...within reason. There is a point when you are pouring that block of melted Velveeta over crumbled breakfast sausages that you may have lost the right to call it lasagne.

I feel this way about phở. It is gratifying that the rest of the world has gotten caught up in Vietnamese cuisine and especially in this soup to the point that they have coined the term "pho-natic" to describe aficionados. Phở differs from region to region in Vietnam as well as varies from beef based to chicken based so I don't see a problem in a chef in Russia wants to add some local herbs to their version of the soup. However, there is a point where you have taken it too far.

People who have taken phở to places it should never go seem to misunderstand the basics of what makes it phở as opposed to, say, beef noodle soup with an "Asian" twist. As with various Chinese cuisines, Vietnamese cuisine follows the five flavor principles of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy, along with yin and yang.  Vietnamese cuisine often incorporates fresh and distinct layers of flavor.  Phở is a showcase of this with all of its different textures and subtle flavors.

First, your foundation is the broth.  There should be a lot of it; a proper bowl of phở should contain enough broth to keep the noodles hot for the duration of your meal.  The broth will take the most effort because the high quality stock bones must be cleaned and blanched once to remove any impurities before being simmered gently to yield a clear broth.  Charred ginger and onions round off the base, along with spices per personal taste (fish sauce, star anise, cloves, etc.).

Next, you want the neutral and chewy textured banh pho noodles or rice sticks.  Traditionally, the 1/16-inch-wide variety is used.  Your third layer will consist of thinly sliced raw sirloin that will cook in the broth, along with any other textured meats that you prefer such as beef balls, tendon bits or tripe.  The fourth layer is the garnish layer of thinly sliced onions, scallions and/or cilantro.

Serve the bowl of phở along with a platter of bean sprouts, Vietnamese herbs, chilies and limes.  These items will be added as the diner eats, creating the last and freshest, crispest layer.  Unlike with Western cooking, the spices should make a layer to the dish, and not just a few lousy strips of chiffonade.

Southern Vietnamese phở-natics like to add fish sauce, hoison sauce, or other savory flavors to their finished product but my family hails from the more unbending North and you will not find me adding anything more than a squeeze of lime and perhaps a sprinkling of chili.  If I were ever to raise a bottle of hoison sauce to my phở then something must have gone terribly wrong.  I want to taste the unadulterated deliciousness of the painstakingly created broth.

 I have seen phở recipes that have included Italian pasta, bouillon cubes, ketchup or sweet and sour sauce mix.  I say blech but if that's what tastes good to you then bon appetit.  But I draw the line when you dump all of your fixings into a pot and cook it into a single taste.  That isn't phở; it's faux and it's foul.

Amen, end of rant.

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