While I was in Scotland visiting Scotch’s parents, my father-in-law (FIL) wanted to learn more about Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. Being avid readers of my blog (they are so sweet and supportive!), he mentioned that he was very keen on learning how to make Pho – the Vietnamese rice noodle soup – that he had read about in my recent post on my mom’s Vietnamese kitchen.
I’ve made Pho a couple of times in Dubai and once for a dinner party and have always had to drive to one market for the bulk of the ingredients (Carrefour or Waitrose), another market for the 1/4-inch rice noodles (Geant because I like the brand that they stock), and yet another market (Sunflower in Karama) for the Asian basil.
There was one unforgettable incident, where a store stocked carrot, spinach, and pumpkin flavored rice noodles, but not the PLAIN ONES! I nearly lost it in the store since I needed the noodles for that night and had already driven to the far reaches of Dubai and back. I ended up buying Pad Thai noodles and just discarded the flavoring packets.
If I had ever complained about the challenges of finding Pho ingredients in Dubai, I take it all back after experiencing the obstacles that awaited me in Dunbar, Scotland, the beautiful sea-side town where the my in-laws live. The birthplace of conservationist John Muir, Dunbar is also known as “Sunny Dunny” because it is the sunniest town in the UK.
We commenced Operation Pho Noodle Soup the day before my FIL and I were to serve the Pho. We headed out to purchase all the ingredients so that we could preempt any last-minute surprises on the actual day of cooking. We drove to North Berwick, which Scotch described to me as “two houses bigger than Dunbar,” because it might have a better selection of meat and produce.
I find most small towns in Scotland to be very charming and North Berwick was no exception. We meandered in and out of tiny shops, window browsing through displays of country furniture, specialty toys, and sea-inspired artwork.
By the time we arrived at the butcher shop, we were so focused on the current night’s dinner of pan-fried sirloin and rib-eye steaks that we left the shop with nothing but steaks. As we strolled towards the beautiful sea where we debated on walking back to the car via land or beach route I suddenly remembered that we were supposed to also buy beef bones for the Pho stock!
Back we went to the butcher’s, re-crossing streets that I still didn’t know whether to look to the left, or to the right for oncoming traffic. I decided it would be safest to look both ways – really fast! – causing Scotch to tease me about looking both ways on a one-way street. Ah well, better safe than sorry.
Back at the butcher’s I asked if they had oxtails but the answer was, “I don’t think so.” So we settled on regular beef bones but they were massive and the butcher wasn’t able to cut them into chunks. I hesitated at first but we were told they were free and to take them anyway.
Free?! Is it the norm to give bones away for free in Scotland? I certainly have never been offered free bones for stock. So WOO–HOO!
Except that they were kind of difficult to fit into the largest pot that my FIL had:
My brain must have been really clouded by jet lag because as we were driving away from North Berwick and the butcher shop, I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten the braising meat for the Pho stock and the thinly sliced beef for the finished soup.
Whoops x 1.
We were on our way to a Tesco supermarket so I was hoping to pick up those items there. We didn’t manage to find any braising meat nor thinly sliced steak but did manage to get bean sprouts, limes, cilantro, and scallions. Asian basil was, unfortunately, nowhere to be found.
FIL said we could probably get some Asian Basil in Edinburgh (a rhetorical statement as none of us had any intention of making the long drive there). At that point, I wished I had brought some from my mom’s veg garden.
It wasn’t until we got home that I finally decided that sleep deprivation (I was functioning on one hour of sleep in the last 36 hours) was really wreaking havoc on my brain because I remembered yet another ingredient I had forgotten to pick up at the store – RICE NOODLES!
Yep, who forgets rice noodles for a rice noodle soup? Moi.
Whoops x 2.
The next day, while the beef bones and spices were simmering in the stock pot, FIL and I drove to a nearby grocery store, Asda, in search of rice noodles, hoisin sauce (which I’d also forgoten to pick up the day before), fillet steak, and more fish sauce (FIL only had a few tablespoons left and one should always have fish sauce in the house :)).
We didn’t have much of a selection at Asda so we picked up what we could find – Blue Dragon Fish Sauce, a Hoisin stir-fry sauce (not quite what I was looking for and tasted marginally like Hoisin sauce but better than nothing), and “Thai Style Ribbon Noodles” (which I assume is the English supermarket translation of “Pad Thai”) to substitue for the Pho noodles.
These noodles were pre-cooked and vacuum-packed but had a slick oily coating on them which I rinsed away with hot boiling water.
We didn’t find any pre-sliced beef (like carparccio) so we bought fillet steak to slice up ourselves which is often what my mom does anyway. I put them in the freezer to harden a little and thus facilitate slicing, intending to leave them there for only 10-15 minutes but I totally forgot about them and after 45 minutes they were too frozen to slice.
Whoops x 3.
FIL put them in the microwave to defrost which ended up softening them back to original texture but he did a great job at slicing them as thin as he could. Since the raw beef slices are placed on the noodles and then cooked by the hot stock that is ladled on top of it, the thinner the beef, the easier it is to cook.
I ended up simmering the bones for 4 hours because I kept feeling that the stock was too light in flavor – it needed to be stronger. Maybe because the bones were so huge and there wasn’t a lot of surface area?
My recipe called for 1/4 cup fish sauce. I tasted the Blue Dragon one we bought at Asda and it was rather bland but very salty. So I minimized the amount of salt I used in the broth and had to triple the amount of fish sauce before I felt that the taste was anywhere close to perfect.
One thing I learned from my mom is that when using soy sauce or fish sauce which are both salty, sugar must be added to balance out the taste. I ended up using 3-4 tablespoons of sugar before I felt that it was balanced.
Cilantro, bean sprouts, scallions, raw thinly sliced onions, red chillis, and limes were used for the garnish. Again, I couldn’t find Asian basil but that is typically added to Pho as well.
The noodles were placed at the bottom of the bowl. If using dried rice sticks, be sure to soften them up in boiling water as per the packet directions just as you would cook dried pasta noodles.
Next I layered the beef (it is usually placed last in the bowl but I was worried it wouldn’t be cooked enough being thicker than usual), then the remaining garnish except for the limes.
Hot beef stock was then ladled into each bowl.
Because all the ingredients are placed raw in the bowl, the stock has to be very hot to be able to quickly cook the meat and garnish. The vegetables won’t completely soften but will retain their crunchy texture and have a nice half-cooked half-raw flavor.
Finally, an important squeeze of lime is added at the very end.
I was pleased with the final result and Scotch said that the taste was close to what it was supposed to be given what I had to work with. It took him years before he appreciated the subtleties of Vietnamese cooking and Chinese soups (home-made versions, not the restaurant stuff) which he at first found to be bland and boring.
He grew up on heavy cream-based soups and hearty stews so having Pho was like the initial shock of suddenly switching from full-fat milk to fat-free.
In the end there were 3 emptied bowls out of 4. My mother-in-law is not a fan of seafood so I can imagine that the fish sauce may have been too strong and overpowering.
I was happy to showcase this Vietnamese dish to my in-laws and hope that they truly enjoyed it and will recreate the recipe when I am gone.
Vietnamese cuisine may at first seem daunting to cook at home as the techniques and ingredients can seem rather foreign. In areas where some of the ingredients cannot be obtained, a little effort has to be made to either drive to a larger market or to purchase on-line.
But I can tell you that I have done it in a small seaside town of Dunbar so you can too!
* * * * *
This month’s Delicious Vietnam #17 is hosted by Phuoc from Phuoc’n’delicious.
* * * * *
- 4 pounds beef bones, preferably with marrow; cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 pound stewing beef (chuck, brisket, etc), rinsed, cut into 2" cubes
- 1 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled, cut into chunks
- 1 large onion, halved and peeled
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- 6 whole star anise
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 3-inch cinnamon stick
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pound ¼-inch rice noodles
- 2 bunches scallions, thinly sliced
- ½ cup tightly packed fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
- ½ cup Asian basil leaves
- 1 cup mung bean sprouts
- ½ yellow onion, very thinly sliced
- 1 large lime, cut into wedges
- ½ pound beef (flank, sirloin, filet mignon), trimmed of fat and sliced very thin across the grain
- Hoisin sauce for dipping the meat
- Hot chilies, sliced or Sriracha sauce (optional)
- Place the beef bones and stewing meat into a large stockpot and add enough water to cover. Bring to a full boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Discard the water and gently rinse the meat and bones. Return the meat and bones to the pot and cover with 2 quarts (2 liters) of fresh, cold water. This process will give you a cleaner and clearer broth.
- Bring the stock to boil again over high heat and then reduce to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes and skim any scum that surfaces.
- Add the remaining broth ingredients, cover and simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours, occasionally skimming any scum that surfaces. Remove the stewing meat and once the meat is cool enough to handle, slice thinly and place in the fridge for later use.
- Simmer the broth for another 1.5 hours and carefully strain through a fine sieve. Remove any remaining tendon from the bones, slice thinly and set aside in the fridge with the cooked beef.
- De-fat the stock by skimming the fat from the surface with a spoon or ladle. (I sometimes use a fat separator to retain as much of the stock as possible.)
- Add the fish sauce, then the sugar, salt and pepper to taste.
- Arrange the cilantro, scallions, bean sprouts, onions, Asian basil, lime wedges, and chillis on a large plate in separate piles. Place the hoisin sauce in small dipping bowls as a condiment for the meat.
- Prepare the rice noodles, drain and divide among the bowls.
- Just before serving, return the broth to a full boil.
- Place the raw sliced onions, the reserved cooked meat and tendon, and the slices of raw beef over the noodles in each bowl.
- Carefully ladle the boiling broth over all the ingredients in the serving bowls. The raw beef should be submerged in the broth to cook properly.
- Serve immediately, along with the garnish and hoisin sauce.