16 March 2010

Pho Bo


Pho (pronounced 'Fer') is a dish almost synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine over here in Singapore. The closest rival would be those crunchy and delicious rice paper rolls, which cannot do without the piquant dipping sauce of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic and a touch of chilli padi.
During Chinese New Year, my mum wanted to do something different and less fussy than the usual Chinese reunion dinner dishes. Since she had just been to Hanoi and brought back many packets of rice paper, she was naturally inclined towards incorporating the rolls into our reunion dinner. This was a perfect opportunity for me to try making some Pho Bo, even though the thought of trying my hand at a dish that Ed eats frequently was terribly stressful.
By the time I realised the high expectations my family had of this Pho Bo I was preparing, it was too late. I had already filled up two big pots with stock made from beef bones and marrow, fish sauce, star anise, cloves and rock sugar. There was nothing else in the fridge that could stand in as a main dish for the meal. It sure smelt heavenly, but I was plagued with fear that it would taste nowhere as good as the aromas seemed to promise.
Alas, my worst fears were realised with the first spoonful of stock I tasted. It tasted nothing like the flavourful soup usually associated with Pho Bo - meaty, slightly tangy, with a hint of spice. I took another spoonful and this time tried to figure out what was lacking. Usually, it just needs a bit of salt, so I added more salt. And more. But there was something else missing - perhaps it was fish sauce. So tablespoon by tablespoon I added more fish sauce in desperation to salvage the 2 big pots of nothingness, and them into 'something edible'.
Slowly but surely, the soup became more and more palatable. Wait, perhaps it is even delicious! I threw in a few stalks of holy basil for good measure, spooned the soup into waiting bowls of noodle and thin slices of beef, then hoped for the best. As I brought the last bowl out into the dining room, I could only hear slurping of noodles.
I was on tenterhooks waiting for the verdict and was taking my first bite when finally someone spoke. Great news, the Pho Bo was a hit! I watched with satisfaction as my family finished their very generous helpings of Pho Bo, 'garnished' with artery-clogging beef marrow, and then went back for seconds. Ed even paid me the highest compliment ever - that it was the best bowl of Pho Bo he had ever tried. And I believe him, not just because I want to, but also because I know he would never lie. Not especially when it comes to something so close to his heart - Pho Bo.

Pho Bo - Vietnamese Rice Noodles Soup with Beef
(Adapted from Epicurious)
Serves 6

2kg beef bones
1.5kg beef marrow
2 (3 inch) pieces of giner, cut in half lengthwise, lightly bruised with the flat side of a knife, and lightly charred (see note below)
2 yellow onions, peeled and charred (see note below)
1/4 fish sauce, and then some to taste
3 tablespoons sugar or equivalent of rock sugar
10 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan
6 whole cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1 tablespoon sea salt, and then some to taste

500g dried 1/16 inch wide rice sticks, soaked, cooked and drained
200g sukiyaki beef i.e. beef sirloin, thinly sliced across the grain

1/3 cup chopped coriander
400g beansprouts
10 sprigs of holy basil/thai basil
6 chilli padi, cut into thin rings
3 limes, halved


In a large stockpot, bring 6 quarts water to a boil.
Place the bones and marrow in a second pot and add water to cover.
Bring to a boil and boil vigorously for 5 minutes. Using tongs, carefully transfer the bones and marrow to the first pot of boiling water. Discard the water in which the meat cooked. (This cleans the bones and reduces the impurities that can cloud the broth.)
When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer.
Skim the surface often to remove any foam and fat.
Add the charred ginger and onions, fish sauce and sugar.

When the broth has been simmering for about 1 1/2 hours total, wrap the star anise and cloves in a tea bag/cheesecloth and add to the broth.
Let infuse until the broth is fragrant, about 30 minutes.
Remove and discard both the spice bag and onions.
Add the salt and continue to simmer, skimming as necessary, until you're ready to assemble the dish.
The broth needs to cook for at least 2 hours.

To serve, place the cooked noodles in preheated bowls. (If the noodles are not hot, reheat them in a microwave or dip them briefly in boiling water to prevent them from cooling down the soup.)
Place a few slices of the raw beef on the noodles.
Bring the broth to a rolling boil; ladle about 2 to 3 cups into each bowl.
The broth will cook the raw beef instantly.
Garnish with coriander.
Serve immediately, inviting guests to garnish the bowls with bean sprouts, basil, chilies and lime juice.

Note on charring ginger/onions:
To char ginger, hold the piece with tongs directly over an open flame or place it directly on a medium-hot electric burner.
While turning, char until the edges are slightly blackened and the ginger is fragrant, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Char the onions in the same way.
Peel and discard the blackened skins of the ginger and onions, then rinse and add to the broth.