For Vietnamese living abroad, a trip to Saigon would be incomplete without a visit to Ben Thanh Market, a huge maze of fresh food and sundries. Near the center is a food court where vendors hawk popular Viet treats. As you sample their wares, you are apt to strike up conversations with other gluttonous Viet kieu (Vietnamese expats). On one occasion, a man from Texas visiting his family for Tet told me part of his daily routine while in Vietnam included eating mien gá, which was so deliciously light that it allowed him to order more dishes from other vendors.
This noodle soup is easy to prepare. Most versions contain shallot, garlic, and chicken giblets, but our family enjoys a simpler preparation that focuses on just a few ingredients, most of which go into the hot stock moments before serving and are then ladled directly into the waiting bowls, with no fancy assembly required. For a nice lunch, present large servings of this soup with a special-event salad. Or, offer it in smaller portions for an elegant beginning to a celebratory meal. This recipe is easily halved.
- 3 quarts (12 cups) chicken stock
- 3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- One 3/4-inch chunk yellow rock sugar (about 3/4 ounce)
- 4 dried wood ear mushrooms, reconstituted, trimmed, and cut into 1/4-inch wide strips (about 1/3 cup)
- 1/2 pound cellophane noodles, soaked in hot water until pliable, drained, and cut into 6-inch lengths
- 1/2 cup lightly packed fresh Vietnamese coriander or cilantro leaves, finely chopped or whole
- Black pepper
- 2 or 3 Thai or serrano chiles, thinly sliced (optional)
1. In a large pot, bring the stock to a boil over high heat. Drop in the chicken breast. When the water starts bubbling at the edges of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and cover tightly. Let stand for 20 minutes. The chicken breast should be firm yet still yield a bit to the touch. Remove it and let cool, then shred with your fingers into small bite-sized pieces, pulling the meat along its natural grain. Set aside.
2. Add the fish sauce and rock sugar to the stock and then bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Taste and add salt, if necessary. Add the chicken, mushrooms, and noodles. As soon as the soup returns to a boil, remove from the heat. The noodles will have become clear and plump. Taste once more to check the seasoning and adjust with fish sauce or salt.
3. Ladle into soup bowls. Because the noodles are slippery, hold a ladle in one hand to scoop up some soup and chopsticks in the other hand to move noodles into the ladle. Garnish with a sprinkle of the Vietnamese coriander and lots of pepper. Serve immediately. Pass the chiles at the table.