Hieu Nguyen grew up in Dalat, Vietnam, until he was five. He remembers Vietnam’s gorgeous rolling hills, beaches, rainforests, and lakes as a cross between Vermont and Costa Rica. He hasn’t been back since he left in 1975, the day before Saigon fell. He hopes one day to visit with his wife and kids. In the mean time, he lights incense and cooks a Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, called pho, combining his grandmother and mother’s methods with his own, discovered after years of cooking it every Sunday for his family.
He starts with one whole chicken. Insisting that the clear broth is only achievable by removing all the skin and fat, he does so with a sharp boning knife, creating what looks like a great textbook chicken-anatomy poster. Then like a surgeon (he even wears surgical gloves) he cuts off every muscle group from the bones while leaving the entire skeleton still intact. He massages all the meat pieces in a bowl with fresh chopped ginger and garlic, sugar, salt and fish sauce, and lets them marinate on the counter while he makes the broth.
In a large stockpot he covers the bones with three inches of water, and adds a peeled carrot. Before adding a two-inch chunk of ginger and a whole onion to the stockpot, he toasts them directly over the flames of his gas stovetop so that they’re steaming, and the ginger skin is smudged with black. He fills a mesh spice ball infuser with three sticks of cinnamon and about a teaspoon each of black peppercorns and cumin seeds, a slightly smaller amount of whole cloves, six star anise, and ten green cardamom pods. He screws on the top and then hangs the chain on the rim of the pot, letting the ball of spices float in the water.
I’ve tried making pho before and my broth was cloudy and disappointing. One thing Nguyen shows me: infuse, don’t abuse. The broth is clear and delicate not only because he took off all the skin and fat, but also because he never lets the broth boil — not even a simmer. Also, about ten times throughout the hour and a half that the broth is steeping, Nguyen lifts out fine particles from the top of the broth with a handheld fine-mesh strainer like it’s a miniature pool-skimmer net.
After he has removed the carrot, onion, ginger, bones, and spice ball with tongs, he carefully adds the chicken meat to the hot broth and sets a timer for 13 minutes. Once the timer is up, he removes the chicken with the tongs and has me taste it: the most tender chicken ever. He insists: 13 minutes poaching is the magic number.
He loads each extra large bowl with rice noodles (cooked just like you would spaghetti), sliced chicken, scallions, broth, fresh mung bean sprouts, and the fresh whole leaves of Thai basil, cilantro, and culantro (a different plant entirely, despite the similar name). He squeezes a lime wedge over each bowl and puts a whole fresh Thai chili on the side for munching on. (I will only make it through half of mine, but he will eat two.) Hoisin and Sriracha sauces are ready to be squirted on top. The contents of our bowls are to be tossed like a salad, and slurped with fat-bottom spoons and chopsticks. The result is better than a restaurant, and far cheaper. Nguyen finds the whole process meditative.
Get ingredients at Veranda Asian Market, 695 Forest Ave, Portland | Find this recipe, how-to-photos and cooking class info at immigrantkitchens.com.