There's a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's book Plenty, I forget the name of the dish. It's a spicy Asian creation of some sort, the breakfast of choice in a certain far Eastern country. In the blurb at the top of the recipe, Ottolenghi says something along the lines of "Breakfast is the one meal that doesn't cross cultural boundaries." This had never occurred to me before, but upon reading it I realised how true this is. No matter what is offered to me for the breaking of my fast in a country other than my native England, I always find it slightly difficult to begin the day with anything other than my usual, rather English, breakfasts: porridge, granola or homemade bread with jam.
Imagine my scepticism, then, when I set off on a trip to Vietnam, a country where breakfast usually consists of a bowl of steaming, meaty, noodle soup. I find it very difficult to contend with the notion of a savoury breakfast, particularly one featuring meat. In the morning, I need the refreshing sweetness of a bowl of fruit, a dollop of jam or a few spoonfuls of soft fruit compote to wake me up and get me ready for the day ahead. It's a strictly sweet affair; for me, breakfast without fruit isn't breakfast. I've never got my head around the cured meat and cheese offered as part of a 'continental' breakfast - in my opinion those delights are best left until lunch.
I needn't have worried. Tourists are very unlikely to find themselves forced to consume noodle soup for breakfast in Vietnam. Your hotel is much more likely to offer bread, jam, or pancakes - quicker and easier to produce, and more acceptable to the Western palate. After a few days of soft, airy Vietnamese baguettes and thick, sweet pineapple pancakes, it was only when we embarked on a street food tour of Hanoi that our fast was broken with a bowl of pho ga. Vietnamese pho, often referred to as the 'national dish' of the country, is an art form. Many outlets in the country have been producing and specialising in it for generations, the method perfected and preserved. The broth sometimes takes over 24 hours to prepare, resulting in a rich depth of flavour that would make you want to throw out your stock cubes. The soup is supposedly a relic of the French rule of Vietnam: the French introduced the eating of cows as beef (rather than simply being used as beasts of burden), and the Vietnamese say that the French took all the good cuts, leaving them with the bones - so they made soup.
Pho bo refers to beef soup; pho ga to chicken. After the broth has simmered until full of flavour, it is served in a big bowl with slippery thick rice noodles, beansprouts, spring onions, coriander, and sometimes a few greens. There are shreds of cooked chicken or pieces of beef - the beef version sometimes, if you get the fancy one, features a mixture of beef meatballs, rare sliced beef (still pink in the middle) and well-cooked beef. The beef variety is accompanied by vinegar, the chicken by tiny Vietnamese limes to squeeze over.
The beauty of a bowl of pho lies in its simplicity. No messing around with fancy garnishes or adornments, or wild flavours. It's all about the deeply comforting clear broth, the healing tangle of rice noodles, the freshness of lime or vinegar. You can get it almost everywhere in Vietnam, where the slurping of the noodles (while the tropical heat condenses in droplets on your forehead and down the back of your neck, you perch on a tiny chair and motorbikes run wild in the street metres away outside), is a ritual of utmost comfort.
It took probably my fourth bowl of pho, wolfed down greedily at a tiny little cafe by the station in Dong Hoi, as we waited to catch our early train down to the imperial capital, Hué, to convert me to its nature as an all-rounder, as suitable for breakfast as for a light lunch or dinner. Having been up since 5am to get to the station, I was ravenous, tired, the strain of our trip starting to take its toll. I sat down on a tiny plastic chair (you rarely sit on anything else in Vietnam - it's a little like being back at primary school) and was presented with a beautiful bowl of beef broth, noodles, and gorgeous slices of bright pink, rare beef, their rich colour set off by the scattering of coriander and spring onions over the top. The warmth of the broth revived my tired head and throat, and as I sipped it I felt, genuinely, that all was right with the world. Dramatic and sentimental, perhaps, but I remember that moment clearly. The start, to carry on in this sentimental vein, of a probable lifelong love affair with Vietnamese soup.
Although I reverted to my sugary ways as soon as I was back to England, I probably wouldn't turn down a bowl of pho for breakfast instead, if it were presented to me ready-made, chopsticks at the ready. It really does have everything you need to set you up for the day.
This is the ultimate meal to have in your repertoire. It takes a little preparation, but to actually make a bowl once you have the ingredients ready takes minutes. It's comforting and indulgent, yet incredibly healthy and nourishing. I can still remember my feeling of utmost excitement when I sat down to try my first attempt at a homemade version, and was instantly transported back to steamy Vietnam, tiny plastic chairs and miniscule green lime halves. I've tweaked the recipe a little since then, and this is the closest I've ever tasted to Vietnamese pho in the UK. I'd even say it rivals some Vietnamese versions, especially now that I've bought the same bowls I ate it out of in Vietnam.
The preparation is easy - you need a chicken carcass and some leftover meat (although if you don't have leftover roast chicken, you can buy cooked chicken, or cook some chicken thighs and shred the meat), a few south-east Asian aromatics like lemongrass and ginger, which subtly flavour the broth, and water. This makes the base for your pho, to which you add rice noodles, beansprouts, pak choi (my addition, but I think it works well), chopped spring onions and coriander, chicken meat, and a generous squeeze of lime.
This is the epitome of good, healthy, 'clean-tasting' food. It's hearty and wholesome, refreshing and reviving. It's a dish that means a lot to me, and for that reason I want to share it with you.
Pho ga (makes 4 servings):
- 1 leftover roast chicken, with about half the meat left on the bones
For the broth:
- 2 shallots
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 lemongrass stalks
- 2-inch piece fresh ginger
- 1 red chilli
- 5 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp salt
- 6 black peppercorns
- 1 small star anise
- A small bunch of coriander, roots only (reserve the leaves for the soup)
For the soup:
- 320g dried thick rice noodles
- 3 spring onions, finely chopped
- A small bunch of coriander, leaves only
- The leftover chicken meat
- 8 baby pak choi
- A few handfuls of beansprouts
- Lime wedges, to serve
First, pick all the meat from the chicken and refrigerate until you need it. Put the chicken carcass in a large pan and cover with 2.5-3 litres water. Roughly chop the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger and chilli (you can leave the skins on) and add to the pan along with the fish sauce, salt, peppercorns and star anise. Bring to the boil, then partially cover with a lid and simmer very gently (you barely want it to bubble) for about 2 hours.
Strain the broth into a clean saucepan, discarding the bones and aromatics. Bring the broth to the boil and let it simmer while you prepare the soup. Taste it - you may want a little more fish sauce or salt to enhance the savoury flavour. You want about 500ml broth per person. Bring another pan of water to the boil and add the rice noodles. Lower the heat and cook for 1 minute, then leave to stand in the water for 2 minutes before draining in a sieve. Run cold water over the noodles, then divide them between deep soup bowls. Sprinkle over the spring onions and coriander, and scatter over the chicken meat.
Add the pak choi to the simmering broth and cook for 2 minutes, then add the beansprouts and cook for a further minute. Ladle the boiling broth, with the pak choi and sprouts, into the soup bowls over the noodles and chicken. Serve with lots of lime to squeeze over.