Pho is iconic Viet food. There are other dishes that speak strongly to me of home & family (I will write of these eventually) but pho is ubiquitous, and accessible. And delicious.
I have fond memories of pho on weekend mornings. A pho weekend was time off for Um. Um did not cook pho very often – it was not one of our family specialties. Pho weekends always felt festive. Every one of the kids had to help out more than usual because Um made pho so she did not have to spend all day at the stove. Sometimes she would disappear for the rest of the day. We were a little giddy with the freedom to eat whenever and how much we liked, and to clean up as we went rather than watch the dishes pile up to be a mountain of washing after the meal. Pho is best prepared the day before. The broth would bubble away in our largest saucepan for hours and hours, filling our home with the delicious smell of burnt onion, star anise and beef. Um always made sure to have enough for every one of her greedy kids to have at least two bowls per meal, plus enough for any guest who might drop in – welcome but unexpected.
Pho weekends were wonderful. Overnight, the gastric juices would be busily working away and I would wake delightedly anticipating pho for breakfast, lunch AND dinner. And every meal in between too.
Ba would have collected all the necessary herbs (basil, perennial coriander, mint) from our garden and I, and some of my sisters, would wash and pluck the herbs, placing them into large tubs to be collected and added to our bowls of pho. Someone would slice onions and chives. We would collect fresh bird eye chillies from the garden, slicing some and leaving others whole. These would be arranged into little bowls: one for whole chillies, one for chopped ones. The pre-prepared chilli sauce (a devilish blend of garlic, salt and chillies of which I have never been able to eat more than a teaspoonful in any of my meals) would be taken out of the fridge and placed on the kitchen table. Someone would slice lemons and we would all argue about how best to slice them: along their length, across their middle or into random cubed shapes.
The task I liked least was washing the bean sprouts, and yet, I like eating them so much! Um was very particular with bean sprouts. She used to grow her own in the laundry sink with rags of fabric, but after a while this became too troublesome, she too tired to do so. Home made bean sprouts went the way of home made tofu: a distant childhood memory. Um bought bean sprouts from the local grocer: large bags of these thin white stalks with a yellow nodding head. Bean sprouts from the grocer were never fresh enough for my mother. She would turn them over and over, and then give them to me to “sort out”. I hated sitting there with two tubs full of water: one for the unsorted sprouts and one for the sorted sprouts. I would dip a hand into the unsorted sprouts and extract a handful of limp stalks. I had to remove the overly limp stalks, any blackened heads and all trailing strings. I then dumped the sprouts into the sorted tub. Invariably I would do a bad job and Um would lean over my tub of sorted sprouts and bring me another tub of water: the sorted sprouts need to be sorted again. Um knows I do such a bad job that these days, she never asks me to sort the bean sprouts.
In the meantime (as I am bent, huddled and grumpy over the beansprouts), one of my sisters would have cooked up the pho noodles: flat, thick rice noodles. Pho refers to the meal, the broth and the noodles themselves. Sometimes we could get fresh noodles from the grocer (you are more likely to be able to, these days) and sometimes they were dried packet noodles. If fresh noodles, they needed a good sniffing to make sure that they were truly fresh (a sour smell indicated that they were not) and then the noodles were dunked into freshly boiled water to be ‘re-freshed’. If dried noodles, they needed cooking in vigorously boiling water until they change from murkily diaphonous into pristinely white.
Ba would be somewhere else slicing different bits of beef into thin pieces, halving beef-balls (processed frozen beef that must be terribly bad for you and yet are unaccountably scrumptious) and separating stomach lining from fat (I never ate these). Ba would also be peeling prawns: an unusual addition to pho but one of my sisters did not eat any beef (although she had no qualms eating the beef broth!).
Thus a pho-assembly line would be formed: mountains of noodles in colanders; plucked sprouts in large bowls; delightful sprigs of fresh herbs, sliced onions and chives on plates; and platters of red slices of beef, round grey beef-balls, yellow stomach lining and lucent fat. The prawns had their own separate plate for my beef-averse sister. Grabbing a large bowl, you would place first a decent handful of noodles, covered in onions, sprouts and herbs and then a selection of beef. You then spoon boiling broth all over the noodles; I like to spoon a bowl-full of broth, and then spoon some out and spoon more in to really cook the beef. I then add more herbs and sprouts (I like some cooked and some crunchy). You then go to the table to add chilli (whole, sliced or sauce), squeeze some lemon juice and add some hoi sin sauce to your broth. You start eating – and you don’t have to wait for the eldest to sit down and pick up their chopsticks before you start.
When I was just becoming a teenager, I and my brother (who is two years older than me) ate a lot for our apparently slender bodies. We were both active kids and both participated in a lot of sports at school. I was a long distance runner and a netball player. He was a soccer star and volleyball king. (He still is. I am not.) We would come home from school ravenous. When we arrived home, we barely called out “Um, Ba, we’re home!” before compiling meals out of breakfast and lunch leftovers, cooking up some instant noodles as the base and then scoffing everything down before our dinner meal no more than two hours later. Whenever I think on how much I used to eat as a teenager, I am amazed. I am sure that, each day, I must have eaten at least half my body weight in food. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Perhaps only a quarter of my body weight.
There was one particular pho weekend where we had guests regularly dropping by. To be polite (and possibly also because I was/am such a glutton), I would fill up a bowl of pho and sit myself down with the guests to eat too. I found myself eating seven bowls of pho before 11am. Ah, the heady days of sporty, fast metabolism youth.
Um does not cook pho anymore. We have all left home now, so she does not need those days off. Rather, one of my brothers-in-law is the pho cook. I have never cooked pho for myself. If I want pho, I either go out to a Viet restaurant in West End, Darra or Sunnybank, or phone my sister to ask when her husband is next cooking pho. Next year, when I will no longer be in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, I might have to learn how to cook pho for myself!
I am intrigued by people who quest for “the perfect bowl of pho” or “authentic pho”. There are a few on this site: PHO-KING
Poor misguided souls – there ain’t no such thing. You can have very good pho, less good pho and may be even bad pho (although I find that difficult to imagine).
But if you’re looking for “authentic”, well – that’s a whole other blog posting. In summary, authenticity is a misnomer. It is non-existent. Sure things can be not quite right but “authentic” structures distinct criteria for exclusion and inclusion: to say that one bowl of pho is authentic suggests that other bowls of pho are not. If you have a bowl of pho in Viet Nam, it’s bound to be authentic, no matter what it tastes or looks like, nor whether it contains herbs and sprouts, hoi sin sauce (or that other more mam like sauce that the north seems to use), has lemon and chilli on the side, or anything else that might be structured as pho. If you have a bowl of pho out of Viet Nam, it is probably based on someone’s recipe, and they probably have some connection to Viet Nam – whether they or one of their parents’ was born there, or they worked/studied there, or have some other interest or connection to either the country itself, or its people, or even only its cuisine, and that bowl of pho is probably “authentic” too.
You are going to think me a terrible luddite but, when in Viet Nam, I desperately craved a hamburger, with chips. I wanted meat, tomato, lettuce and thick bread. And chips. So I ordered the same from the hotel we were staying in. I got a delicious burger on lovely dense bread and great chips – I would call that an authentic burger.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Pho King site is great. And I will use it as a guide should I ever find myself in North America, looking for a good bowl of pho. And I can and will happily tell you where to go in Brisbane to get a good (according to me) bowl of pho. My brother-in-law’s place is first – but you might have some difficulty wrangling an invitation to his house. Otherwise, Quan Thanh on Hardgrave Road is the best place I know to buy a bowl of pho. In the city, AJ’s Vietnamese House does a mean bowl. If ‘authenticity’ means to you that the food is prepared by a person of Vietnamese origin, as far as I can tell, the people at AJ’s are not Vietnamese. I know only from listening in on shouted kitchen conversations and my attempt to order “pho dac biet” in Vietnamese. I got a blank stare – so I ordered “special beef noodle soup” in English instead, and that got the desired result. (A delicious and steaming bowl of noodles, beef, herbs and bean sprouts). In Darra, I would go to Cam Ranh (run by a Viet-Australian man) and in Sunnybank I would go to Little Taipei. Yes, Little Taipei does the best pho in Sunnybank (according to me).
But I can’t and won’t tell you that it’s the authentic thing.
Unless of course, I am being ironic.