I eat pho -- chicken or beef -- almost every morning at the restaurant. It's also the first thing I eat when I go back to Vietnam. My family left Vietnam when I was twelve years old, and eighteen years passed before I returned. On my first trip back, I landed in Hanoi in the morning from an overnight flight. It was disorienting to disembark from the plane into the humid day, stepping into a country that was both intensely familiar and also a distant memory. I went straight to a coffee shop, a noisy shoebox of a space where men were talking over coffee and the owner was dispensing bowl after bowl of pho. I was back in Vietnam.
Bowls of pho are the hamburgers of Vietnam: incredibly popular, eaten every day by a majority of the population, young and old. In the mornings in Hanoi, you see commuters sitting astride their parked mopeds, slurping down a bowl before they continue on to work.
Every pho place serves the soup with a plate of garnishes: rau ram, mint, Thai basil, slices of jalapeño chile, mung bean sprouts, lime wedges, and sometimes fried shallots or Chinese doughnuts. The trick is to add a little bit of each item as you eat your way through the bowl, not to dump them in all at once. You want the herbs to maintain their fragrance, the bean sprouts to stay crunchy -- it's all about aroma and texture, and if you add too much too soon, you'll end up with black herbs and soft sprouts, which defeats the whole purpose.
1. To cook the chicken, place the chicken in a large pot with scallions, ginger and salt and add enough cold water to cover the chicken by one inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat so water is simmering vigorously and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove pot from heat, cover, and let stand 25 minutes. (Note: If your chicken in larger than 3 pounds, add 5 minutes of simmering time for each extra pound.)
2. Just before the chicken is ready, prepare a large ice-water bath. When the chicken is done, remove it from the pot (discarding the cooking liquid) and immediately submerge it in the ice-water bath, which will stop the cooking and give the meat a firmer texture. Let stand 20 minutes, until the chicken is cool enough to handle easily, remove from the water, and pat dry. Pull the chicken meat from the bones, discarding the bones and skin. Shred the meat with your fingers; you should have about 4 cups. (This step can be done a day ahead.)
3. In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil over high heat. Taste for seasoning and add fish sauce, if needed.
4. To ready the garnishes, arrange the basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and chiles on a platter and place on the table.
5. Divide the rice noodles evenly among warmed soup bowls. Top each serving with about 3/4 cup of the shredded chicken, then divide the scallions and cilantro evenly among the bowls. Ladle the hot stock over the top, dividing it evenly, and sprinkle with the fried shallots. Serve immediately, accompanied with the platter of garnishes.
Reprinted from the book Vietnamese Home Cooking by Charles Phan. Copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
"Globally, 95 percent of our calories now come from 30 species," says journalist and educator Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate. "Three-fourths of the food we eat comes from 12 plants and five animal species."