Our week in Vietnam was the most delicious week of my life. We were lucky enough to get to try many of the important local dishes in each region — and when our guides heard I was looking for something specific, they always made sure to take me to their favourite spot for that meal!
Starting in the south of Vietnam, we had cold glasses of cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese Iced Coffee) at Trung Nguyen (my favourite is the Creative 5, iced with condensed milk on the side) in Ho Chi Minh City, and an awesome vegetarian meal at Hum Vegetarian Restaurant followed by rooftop drinks at the Rex Hotel. We ate cassava dipped in salty-sweet crushed peanuts at the tunnels of Củ Chi — where I think they were trying to show us the hardships of being a Vietnamese soldier, but we thought it was delicious.
In Hoi An I learned what makes Quảng Noodles special (it’s the well water), and how to make fresh rice noodles from scratch, ate all the Bánh xèo, had one of the best meals of my life cooked by underprivileged local kids (stay tuned for the whole story), and devoured the Bánh mì from the famously Anthony Bourdain-endorsed Bahn Mi Phuong… twice! (Yes, you must go.)
And with all of this amazing Vietnamese food, we still hadn’t had a bowl of the most respresentative dish of Vietnam: Phở. So upon our arrival in Hanoi, we had a mission: Eat Phở!
Well, I can tell you this — if you do one thing in Hanoi, make it a street food tour. We met up with our guide, Y, from Hanoi Cooking Centre, and the first words out of his mouth to us were: “have you had breakfast?” Of course not! We wanted to eat everything! So he zipped us across the street to Phở Huyền (31 Châu Long), and gave us a pronunciation lesson. The diacritical marks above the vowels in Vietnamese indicate tones, so Phở needs to sound like you’re asking a question (listen here from wikipedia). Now you know.
We walked past the cart at the front of the shop:
Piled high with meaty options:
And sat down at a small table, ready for us with sliced chilies, slices of lime, rice vinegar with chili and garlic slices, and fish sauce:
As we wanted to try everything, Mr. KitchenOperas and I had a strategy — order different things and share! So my bowl was Phở Gà (Chicken Soup):
And Mr. KitchenOperas got the Phở Bò (Beef Soup):
You begin by tasting the broth, and oh man. My chicken broth was totally clear but felt unctuous in the mouth, and was fragrant with cinnamon and star anise. Our guide, Y, explained that the broths at Phở Huyền start with beef or chicken bones and water, and then build up flavour with onion or shallots and ginger (which are charred until they are black), and dry roasted cinnamon, star anise, and black cardamom. Each restaurant, cart, or family has its own way of preparing the broth — here the chicken broth is simmered for 6 hours, while the beef broth is simmered for 24 hours.
Then you can dress your soup to how you like it. I tend to like lime juice and fresh chilies. You can also add a “Vietnamese Savoury Donut” — which is shaped like a bone to remind you where the broth comes from!
You can buy these “bone donuts” in bulk at the local markets — they’re made from a mix of wheat and rice flour, so they’re not gluten-free. They’re light and crispy on the outside, and they get soggy soaking up the broth.
Y also told us about a secret ingredient: Sa Sung (sandworms). Yes, worms. Apparently you can add them fresh or dried to the broth, and they make the Phở extra sweet and salty. They’re quite expensive, so this shop didn’t use them. I was quite happy to focus on what my worm-free bowl contained: water mint leaf, scallions, onion-heavy chicken dumplings, and fresh rice noodles.
The whole experience was so magical, that I knew I’d have to try this out for myself at home. And I knew I’d have to try make the broth myself from scratch.
So, last weekend, when I had some extra time to myself on a rainy & lazy Sunday, I decided it was time to tackle my own chicken stock. I started with instructions from The Kitchn — which is usually my first stop for new techniques like How to Roast the Perfect Chicken, or recipes like these off-the-hook Bacon-Cheddar Twice Baked Potatoes. I let the stock simmer away all afternoon, and in the final hour I added braised shallots & ginger (after reading this Serious Eats article about Phở), along with the aromatics (my house version is now cinnamon, star anise, fennel, and cloves). I poured it into mason jars, and voila! My very own chicken stock, ready for Phở Gà!
During the week, when I didn’t have as much kitchen time, it was really easy to grab a jar of stock, and use it as the base for a good meal. Out of 2.5L of final stock, I made two big portions of this soup, three servings of a “fusion soup’ with sesame oil, tamari, and ramen noodles, and turkey enchiladas for four people!
If you’ve got the stock, this is all the prep you need to do to make Phở Gà:
And you’ll still have time leftover to make silly Instagram videos about it:
So… who’s ready PHO some Phở Gà?
Phở Gà (Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup)
This recipe for chicken pho includes making the chicken stock from scratch. I did this on a lazy, rainy Sunday and left it bubbling away on the stove while I read a book. Pretty much hands-off cooking. Then with my homemade stock cooled and strained into mason jars, I had it ready for a quick weeknight dinner – just add some fish sauce, sugar and tamari, and you have the base for an awesome chicken soup. Makes about 2.5L stock.
Make in advance: Homemade Chicken Stock for Phở Gà
- 2 chicken carcasses (leftover from roasted/rotisserie chicken), cut or pulled apart
- 3 shallots, peeled & halved
- 2″ nub of fresh ginger, unpeeled & sliced
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 star anise
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 6 whole cloves
Place your chicken bones (it’s ok if they’re frozen or room temperature) in a large stockpot, and pour in enough water to cover the bones with an extra inch of water. Bring the pot to a simmer over low heat, and leave it there for 4 hours. This may mean adjusting the temperature every so often to keep the simmer going — a good simmer for stock has a few small bubbles, a bit of steam, and bit of movement in the water (180-190°F). If you’d like a clear stock, skim off any foam that rises to the top of the pot (I don’t bother).
While the stock is simmering, place your shallots and ginger on a cookie sheet under the broiler. Broil until blackened. Set these charred shallots and ginger aside.
After 4 hours, add the charred shallots and ginger, along with the cinnamon, star anise, fennel, and cloves. Simmer for another hour, then strain into mason jars (I got 2.5L, which fit perfectly into 5 x 500ml jars). Once cool, cover and store in the fridge.
- 1L (4 cups) homemade chicken stock
- 1 Tbsp. nước mắm (fish sauce)
- 1 Tbsp. tamari
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon chili flakes
- 2 roasted chicken thighs, shredded
- 1/2 package bánh phở (rice noodles)
- 1 carrot, peeled and julienned
- 1 shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 2 radishes, thinly sliced
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- 1 handful fresh cilantro leaves
- 8 mint leaves
- 8 Thai basil leaves
Pour the chicken stock into a pot, and add the fish sauce, tamari, sugar, and chili flakes. Bring up to temperature and add the rice noodles, shredded chicken, carrot, and bell pepper. Cook until the noodles are soft (about 2 minutes), and add the radishes.
Pour into large bowls, and serve with lime wedges, cilantro, mint and basil leaves. Savour your Phở Gà.