I love pho but I do not know how most pho lovers season the soup. I just realized that I have been splashing the same swirl of the chili garlic sauce (with the chicken on the bottle) and one more swirl of plum sauce on my pho--which, by the way, makes for a tasty, reddish-colored broth. And I always throw in the bean sprouts, basil and chili pepers. But, what the heck do real Thai folks do? I have been avoiding the evil-looking chili-oil, etc. Please advise, esp. if you are a Bangkok-born person.
First of all, Pho is Vietnamese and not Thai.
Secondly, that is fermented fish sauce and not plum sauce you are putting in your noodles
The red paste is similar to the stuff that comes out of the bottle with the Rooster on it, but it has garlic and the whole seeds. I actually find it less spicy and more flavorful than the stuff in the bottle.
Authentic Pho places with also have a brown paste that has peanut oil, shallots, etc in it. Its called Satay. I Love it.
People put fresh basil, beansprouts, and lime which are usually served with it. Authentic places serve a spikey long green leaf that I love too. But only the better quality places have this leaf as its expensive and hard to get.
I also get a side of onions, slices thin which I eat with my Pho. You mix it with the red chili sauce from the bottle and a litte sugar and pick up pieces and eat its with your Pho.
re: Diamond Dog
Many places do have plum sauce or hoisin sauce, as well as the chili sauce (Sriracha) or chili garlic paste, fish sauce, and thin sliced jalapenos. The thin sliced onions are usually added to the pho as well. Satay sauce seems to be more of a regional thing since I have only seen it available at a minority of the pho joints I've been to while plum sauce is at most places.
re: The Rogue
Normally at Pho places in California Sweet Sauce (brown sauce is another name), soy, chili sauce along with salt and pepper at the table.
On the condiment plate is bean sprouts, Thai basil, chili pepper and lime.
I put the brown sauce in a soy dish with a little chili oil and dip the chopstick into the mixture and put on the rice noodle. That way I have only the basil, bean sprouts, lime and chili in the soup itself. I fine that I like the wonderful favor of the beef soup clear and fresh all thur the meal. I fine that the Hosin/brown sauce changes the favor of the broth.
re: Diamond Dog
That long spiky green leaf is called saw edge herb or culantro, not cilantro. My good Vietnamese friend always uses it and beef tendon in her Pho. The beef tendon gives an incredible depth of beefy flavor and is yummy to eat too. She also adds slices of the Vietnamese pate. I don't know the name, my local Korean market has it frozen. It is wrapped first in banana leaf and then in foil. It is also used in bahn mi sandwiches and is delicous.
Here's a story on Pho I wrote a few years ago. I think I posted it here back then, but couldn't find it when I searched just now. It should have all the information you need and is based on steaming bowls of pho all over the US and from research in the damp dark basement libraries of a few culinary institutes. After reading it again I have an unbelievable craving for some pho on this New Years Day. I think I'll have to head to the City and grab a big 'ole bowl to start off the New Year.
Good Luck and Happy New Year Everybody!
Enraptured by Pho
by J. Forester
Pho glorious Pho Pho theres nothing quite like it. Please Sir, may I have some more. Just thinking of that steaming hot and fragrant Vietnamese beef soup, sends me into a reverie. It caresses the body and soul, soothing you with its warm, meaty flavor. Its all that a good soup should be. Soup I say, not stew. A sumptuous soup is a combination of things, each separate and held together with a flavorful broth. Its like a dance where each individual has their role, held together by the beat of the drum and melody of the music. A stew, on the other hand is a mixture of its components, long cooked until all the flavors have merged into a homogenous whole. But a good soup is full of surprises that one must dig for. A treasure hunt of the senses. You use your smell to inhale that tantalizing aroma, taste the myriad teasing flavors, touch with your tongue those amazing textures, your sight to observe the classic and simple beauty, and hearing to enjoy the crisp crunches and wet slurps of contentment, both yours and your neighbors, as you seek to unearth the goodies from the depths of that mysterious treasure chest of a bowl.
I remember the first time I tried it. It? That sounds like some illicit substance Im talking about, but then maybe it is given my addiction.
I had just moved to Seattle for grad school, and it was the start of the bumbershoot season. You know, when every person walks around carrying a bumbershoot to open at the first sign of rain, like flowers reaching up expectantly for a drink. Ok, Ok the rest of the world calls them umbrellas, but this is Seattle. Enough said.
I didnt realize that the gray weather was really here to stay for months and months and months. New York, my home town, gets much more rain than Seattle does. But Seattle gets it in long, slow, and drawn out doses. Thats right, doses. Like some nasty medicine you have to suffer through bit by bit. Actually, except for a few weeks at the beginning and end of the gray season it really doesnt rain. It mists non-stop mist coming down. Just hanging in the air causing never ending bad hair days. The cold, while never intense, seeps deep down into your bones. Give me a nice crisp icy day over a cold wet one any time, but no, I wasnt going to be that lucky.
One afternoon I had just finished class at U-Dub and was slogging home through the mist. Slowly because I was starving and was looking in the window of every restaurant I passed, as I made my way up University Avenue. Just seeing what might catch my eye as I checked all the places to munch. I had just passed the brew pub where I worked and saw some commotion across the street. It was in front of the Vietnamese place so I crossed over to take a peek and satisfy my curiosity. Hell I was bored, besides hungry. I had walked past this Vietnamese restaurant in my neighborhood a ton of times. It was just one of literally dozens of different exotic places within two to three blocks of my home. One that I hadnt had the opportunity or inclination to check out yet. Strangely, on this gray and dreary day it was packed. Why were there so many people there? I didnt know what Vietnamese food was like to tell you the truth. So what was the big deal today?
I sauntered on over to the queue and approached this mildly bedraggled chick, a haughty ash blonde with damp tendrils of hair fetchingly plastered to her forehead. Whats up with this line? I asked offhandedly. She replied in a harsh tone Its for the Pho! I replied Pho what? and she made a growling sound and gave me a dirty look. OK OK Sorry, but seriously whats Pho? As she looked at me, a slightly different cast came about her face and body. With a drop in her voice, almost reverently she said, Soup Hot, steamy, earthy soup that fills you with an uncontrollable desire for more and she turned dreamily away having promptly forgotten that I even existed. Hmmm anything that could change this cold ones affect at just the thought, was something I had to try. I felt the need for some of that sensuous warmth that she had mentioned and knew that none would come from her, so I might as well try the soup.
Well, I joined the other bone-chilled lost souls on the line and after a short, but seemingly interminable wait, I sat down at a huge communal table. Here I was, surrounded by a bunch of other waterlogged and unhappy folks but wait, what was this? They didnt all seem unhappy. Not the ones slurping up the soup. Just the ones still waiting to be served. OK, now were getting somewhere. It wasnt just Ms. Freezes mood that needed melting a bit. We all felt the same. Hey, maybe even every moist person in the whole soggy city needed some warmth and solace.
An elderly Asian waitress shuffled over and mumbled something to me I wasnt even sure it was English. I hurriedly pointed at the bowl of the person next to me. Shortly the old woman worked her waitress magic and I had a plate of herbs and a bowl of soup plopped down in front of me. Then my neighbors pushed some strange sauce bottles in my general direction. I watched the others at the table and did as they did, following their ritual. I threw the herbs- basil and some other strange looking leaves , followed by some bean sprouts and a squeeze of lime into my bowl. Then, following their lead, I squeezed some of the smelly, sticky, and fiery looking condiments from the bottles and dug in my spoon. Suddenly it happened, I entered the state of Nirvana. Holy Cow this was great! Not just great but amazing! The beatific broth had me dropping to my knees and begging the Lords forgiveness for my wrongs. This was one of those praise his name in pleasure, glad for giving us this opportunity, sheer happiness incarnate, times of my life. A halo appeared over my head and I was found pleasing to the Lord. Im talking rapture here. Just take me straight to heaven because my life is fulfilled! Hey Im not even religious, but you get the picture.
I soon had a spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other and was slurping and chowing down like wildfire. I couldnt get enough of this stuff. Each sip of the beefy broth soothed my soul. As I added bit of this and that ever deeper into bliss I descended, as I encountered the ever changing and contrasting potpourri of flavors that is Pho. Utopia I entered, and manna, your name is Pho.
Well, I can tell you that the Pho House or Pho Joint as the local Seattleites called it (What a mouthful, after a few months I started pronouncing it, much more appropriately, Satellites, to the annoyance of the locals), was an almost daily stop for me that wet, dreary season to help fight off those damp misty blues. It helped to put a smile on my face, and sanctify my inner being. Forget the moody blues, I saw rainbows and heard the sweet harps of angels on the stairway to heaven. Aah to have that miraculous day again the day I was cleansed and healed. That glorious day I first met one of my best friends, Pho. (Of course then there was the day soon after, when I met another good Vietnamese friend Banh Mi, but thats another story.)
As I came to learn more about food over the years I came to know Pho quite well. I started as a novice but with time and patience I became an expert. There is so much to know, to consider. At times it can seem a major undertaking. When ordering your bowl of Pho you have several considerations. How hungry are you? How much variety do you want? Pho can be served in small bowls that are just the right size for a light appetizer to mammoth tureens that can feed a whole family, though generally a bowl is just for one person no matter its size. One of the purported meanings of Pho is ones own bowl because you just dont want to share it. Thats right. Go get your own bowl, damn it. This ones mine! I generally like to order an extra large which makes a good sized but not overfilling meal for a hungry dude.
Then I peruse the menu as to the variety of offerings. If I like an adventure I get a combination bowl with up to ten types of thinly sliced cuts of beef, including specialty items such as chewy tendons and crunchy ribbons of tripe. If I am feeling a bit more mundane then I just order the sirloin or top round, thinly sliced raw, rare, or cooked. Rarely, but not traditionally, you may see seafood or chicken offered as well.
Basically there are several components to a good Pho. The first is the broth made from beef and beef marrow bones full of flavor. This broth is mildly seasoned with a hint of fish sauce that provides a mild salty tang that complements the beef. Enriching it and coaxing out the nuances. The true beef essence. It is spiced lightly with any or all of the following: toasted star anise, charred ginger and onions, cloves, and black peppercorns. The next part is the noodles. Nice and soft, but still chewy, the rice noodles are briefly blanched before being placed in the bowl and covered with scalding broth. After that you have the meats. These are layered on top of the noodles with a thin slice or two of raw onion as a final flourish. The raw or rare beef cooks in the boiling hot broth giving an added complexity to the overall flavor. Finally there are the garnishes. A plate on the side is piled high with lime wedges, fresh basil and saw leaf, hot chilies, and crisp bean sprouts. In containers to the side are all the sauces: piquant chili pastes and tangy fish sauce, sweet hoisin and salty fermented bean paste. These sauces can be mixed to taste in a small bowl, creating a custom sauce in which to dip your meats before eating. Or you can just add a dash of this and that to your brimming bowl.
Its time to wax even more poetical on Pho... I think the great thing about Pho is the changing tastes that go on throughout the meal as you add a bit of this and that every few mouthfuls. A hearty squeeze of tangy citrus or a generous sprig of fragrant basil, a dash of salty fish sauce or dab of spicy hot sauce. Then there's the textures of the crunchy bean sprouts, firm noodles, the tender, chewy, or crunchy meats. An ever-changing contrast of flavors and textures with each bite and sip. Its a two handed meal that you dig into by working the chopsticks with one hand for all the meats and veggies, and the spoon in the other, to sip that amazing broth between bites. Pho gives me a major food orgasm...! A Phogasm!
We westerners usually think of soup as a lunch or dinner food. The Vietnamese feel a bit different. Pho is considered a traditional and much loved breakfast item. While the mornings may be cool it is usually blistering hot by noon. And who wants a hot bowl of soup that ends up over-salted from your sweat? Sometimes Pho is served in a normal Vietnamese restaurant but mostly its found in places that specialize in just Pho and a few other light items. Usually referred to as Pho Houses. I rarely make it for a Pho breakfast since I lately live in the burbs and have to trek to New York City to slake my cravings. If I am alone I love grabbing a seat at a communal table, so that I have some company, imaginary or otherwise, for my meal.
After doing my homework I found that Pho seems to have first originated in Hanoi during the French occupation in the late 1800s. Prior to that time the Vietnamese did not eat much red meat and used cows and buffaloes for beasts of burden. Instead they preferred pork, chicken, and seafood. The French taste for beef spread rapidly, especially among the upper class Vietnamese and then throughout all society as beef became more available. One theory is that originally beef broth was pot-au-feu and Pho may have developed from the word feu for fire. Another lesser agreed to theory is that it was the Chinese who created Pho and that it was originally Phan as in nguu nguc phan which is rice paste soup with beef. Anyway the Vietnamese soon changed the dish using local ingredients of which nuoc mam (fish sauce) was the defining taste to the clear beef bone and marrow broth. Later the aforementioned black pepper, star anise, cloves, charred ginger and onions, and other spices were used to flavor the broth as well.
By the 1930s northern Vietnamese scholars were writing about Pho and praising it lavishly. In the 1950s when northerners fled the communist takeover, the dish spread to the rest of Vietnam. This was when the Vietnamese people started a love affair for Pho. It was at this time that the simple broth became embellished with various meats, including specialized cuts and organ meats, and of course noodles. The southern Vietnamese liked richer flavors and started adding garnishes such as limes, basil and saw leaf, chilies, chili sauce, hoisin, and salty fermented bean paste. Eventually paper thin onion slices and bean sprouts made the list. It seems that lime is the favored citrus in Vietnam and lemon is not used much at all, but may make an appearance in restaurants in the United States.
Pho is considered a whole meal and you might not want to forget that. Otherwise you may order way too much food and explode as you waddle out the door. The best way to eat Pho is steaming hot. You add a bit of the garnishes at a time so that the flavors stay bright and also so that the ingredients dont cool down the soup too much. Then you add more garnishes to taste every few bites. An Asian style spoon is held in one hand and chopsticks in the other as you take turns with each hand, scoffing down the meat and veggies while spooning up the broth. You eat rapidly with little conversation, just happy slurps. Traditionally you dont drink all the broth but it is just fine to pick up that bowl and happily swallow down everything but the last spice laden mouthful.
Aah Pho, that magical mixture. Now you know what I mean. Oh, and by the way, just in case you were wondering. Its really pronounced Fuh. Like in fuhgedaboudit. Which, once you try it, you wont.