I remember the first time my virgin, Pho Soup lips touched that delicate blend of indescribeable flavor. It was my Oprah ‘Aha’ moment of a cuisine so unfamiliar, of a spice combination so.. well, (I hate to say it) foreign, and yet so soothing. So balanced. So complex and deep.
The day I had my first ‘Pho’ Orgasm’ (lovely play on words) is ingrained in my brain. I finished clearing an entire back yard of laurel trees with an electric chain saw, getting it back into the shape of a hedge, but had no one to haul the debris away.
Like magic, this Vietnamese man knocked on my door. How he knew I needed his services in my back yard I will never know, but he appeared as if the gods had sent him, and did the job of 5 men with just his wife in 5 hours. They started at 9 and by noon were starving so they went to get some lunch and brought me back a portion of Pho’ Soup.
How nice was that?
That’s all I can say. OHMYGAWD!
I was hooked and enjoyed three blissful years of Pho Soup at my beck and call in almost every neighborhood in Seattle. My favorite one was Pho’ Hoa, on Rainier Ave.
When we moved to Phoenix I had no idea how hard Pho Soup would be to get. After about 6 months of being here my Pho’ withdrawls went into overdrive. I Googled, and fervently searched out, a couple of places that served it. One of the restaurants was owned by a guy who used to own a restaurant near where I lived in Seattle, but was selling 1/2 of the product for a lot more money… and it wasn’t as good! Tried another place, they forgot the condiments. This is like McDonalds serving a hamburger and forgetting the meat. Never went back. The soup base wasn’t even good enough to argue over.
Please, understand this: There is nothing like this taste in any american soup, for sure, but there is also nothing like it in any other Asian soup I have personally eaten. Take Miso Soup. So… Not American. So different, and yet… not deep. Not complex. Just different in an ‘oh, that’s different’ kind of taste.
Hot and sour soup? A little more complex, with the hijiki seaweed, and dried mushrooms, but still, the depth is missing, and both are appetizers, not a meal.
Pho’ soup is a meal. It’s like a Hot Dog stand in New York… The Soup of the Vietnamese Nation, sold by street vendors on every corner. No I haven’t been there… it’s flavor has intrigued me so much that I actually read the history on it.
I truly am a Food Geek.
I would love to see Alton Brown do a show on this stuff. This is just what he could sink his teeth into… but 3/4’s of America would not know what Pho’ Soup was and would probably turn the channel at the first mention of Ox Tail in the soup base.
I have attempted to make my own cheater version, for the real version is so long winded, with so many spices, that it would cost me $40.00 for the first bowl. It would be like making Lasagna from scratch, starting without even one of the ingredients or spices in your fridge.
In my desperation, I have been known to substitute beef or chicken Top Ramen or Maruchen, with a little oyster sauce, a few cilantro and basil leaves thrown in, and enough Sriracha Sauce to hide the inequities. It’s not bad, but it aint Pho’.
The other day, I decided, enough was enough. I Googled Pho’, read recipe after long winded (massive ingredients) recipe, and found a Pho Soup Paste that alot of people on the internet were recommending as the way to go.
I had even printed a picture of the jar because I wanted to make sure to be able to communicate what I wanted, and then, with product picture in hand, I was off to ‘The Asian Store’.
I get there, and low and behold, what did I forget? The print out of the product. Great.
I am on my own. Totally. There is no one to help me; no one whose first language is English, and isle by isle I wander, picturing the photo of the jar in my mind. I can’t read half of the labels, it’s all Chinese to me (bad play on words). I can’t see far without my glasses, but for things close-up I can’t use my glasses. This is an effort in head tilt-ilation (not a bad play on words). Exhausting.
Boom. There it is!
But wait. There are more. Of COURSE there are. There are Beef Pho, (the only kind I have had), then there are chicken Pho’, and Pork Pho’. Not only that but there are differend brand names than the one that came up as the Holy Grail of my internet search, AND there are bullion CUBES… But which one? Which one do I get?
I want beef Pho’ because that’s what I am tyring to replicate. Screw it. Get all of them! They are all less than $3.00 per jar or pack, and I am on a mission. OK - So there were only four different ones recognizable to me as Beef Pho’, so it wasn’t that much money.
The Pho Cook Off:
I purchased four plastic Asian Soup Bowls just for the occassion. They hold about 4 cups of liquid, and each of the jars of paste, and the bullion cube called for three cups of water. Perfect.
I set out all four bowls and carefully lined up one product behind each bowl. Every jar said to put one spoonful of the Pho’ paste into three cups of water. Spoonful? What size spoon? I decided on a Tablespoon.
Product One: Brand Name ‘La Lucky Brand’ - ‘Gia Vi Nau Pho’ - Instant Beef Flavor Paste. 16 oz jar. Three cups water to one Tablespoon of paste.
Opinion: Too beefy, without the subtle nuances of true Pho. Too heavy.
Product Two: Brand Name ‘Por Kwan’ - Pho - Vietnamese Flavour Paste For Vietnamese Noodle Soup. 8 oz jar.
Opinion: Trying too hard. All the right spices but in the wrong amounts. Very oily compared to the others.
Product Three: Brand Name ‘Por Kwan’ - ‘Gia Vi Nau Pho’ - Instant Beef Flavor Paste. 16 oz jar.
Opinion: Although pastes One and Three are ‘Beef Flavored Paste’, they both had the name Pho in their Vietnamese description which is why I grabbed them. They are both, distinctly, not Pho… but an Asian version of Beef Flavored soup base. Again, this one was heavy on the beef taste, without the subleties of traditional Pho’, yet both 1 and three were distinctly different from eachother.
Product Four: Brand Name - Bao Long - Pho - Vien Gia Vi - Yellow Box with Red Meat in picture: Pho Soup base Number 4 was a buillion cube. The photo on the little box had red meat… there was nothing that said (nor indicated) either chicken or vegetable broth. The ingredients read like a detective novel… Salt, Sugar, MSG and Spices.
I unwrapped one of the cubes, about 2.5 times the size of an American bullion cube, to reveal the common yellowish color of a chicken bullion cube. Huh. Oh well, into three cups of water it went.
Opinion: The instructions were in liters, and I didn’t check the metric conversion so this one turned out way too light in flavor. Probably should have only been 2 cups of water…. or even one, like our US tradition. 8 oz water to one bullion cube. The flavor had all of the subtleties of a traditional Pho’ Soup, but because it was chicken based and so light in taste.. I ignored it … for the most part.
OK. None of the soup bases were quite right.. and perhaps it was my measurements, or they were just too heavy.
Again, what is a Spoonful?
Synapses flashed and I got a thought… What if I lightened up one of the beef sauces with the lighter Pho bullion? I tired several combinations with each of the soup bases and came up with a true winner.
TA-DA! The closest I have come to the rich nuance, the complex flavor… Combine Product number 2 with Product number 4! Yowsa!
I added just a touch (spoonful) of fish sauce (ok, a teaspoon). It’s a very light, clear fish sauce… It definitely made a difference.
So, I will stick to this, as I have had three bowls of it in the last 2 days…
Here are photos of the products for you to remember to print and take in…
Faux Pho’ Soup Recipe (Awesome play on words!)
6 cups of water with one tablespoon of ‘Por Kwan’ - Pho - Vietnamese Flavour Paste For Vietnamese Noodle Soup… and one Bao Long - Pho - Vien Gia Vi - Bullion Cube. Bring to a boil and mix well.
Throw in one sliced green onion and one tspn ginger.
Add One tspn Fish Sauce - light and clear.
Boil Rice Stick Noodles (Banh Pho) in water until done (about 6 minutes) and rinse. These are flat and come in a packet of two ‘layers’. Put one layer in for two people (more or less depending on how much noodles you like).
Place the noodles into 2 bowls large enough to handle at least 3 cups of liquid… 4 cup capacity would be better, for those big appetites.
Many Pho’ soups can be garnished with exotic meats. You might be into it.. I am not, so, add any sliced meat of your choice. My (see how it’s mine now) ‘Asian Store’ had Ribeye sliced really thin while frozen and already packed up just for this. Awesome!
Add Cilantro, Basil, lime and bean sprouts, jalepenos, and hot sauce to your liking.
I like an even amount of Basil and Cilantro, a tiny squirt of lime, a few bean sprouts, some thinly sliced meat, and a helluvalot of Sriracha sauce (the bottle with the rooster on the front, not the jalepeno.. the jalepeno brand is milder).
I have added jalepenos, but there wasn’t really any flavor enhancement. Certainly, the heat index does go up…
That’s it. Put the noodles, the meat, cilantro and basil in a bowl. Add the broth and it will cook the raw meat, heat the noodles, and release the flavor of the fresh herbs. Squirt in the hot sauce, the lime juice and … Faint from flavor.