The Great Pho Party ’09

So I’m back. Hopefully this blog will come alive again now that I’m back to focusing on food and identity full time in my PhD (after a manic year off as a worker). But on to the real story…

Last weekend, to celebrate receiving a scholarship for the rest of my PhD (yay!!), I invited about 20 of my friends and family who have been through the first couple years of my part-time student/mother/worker struggles with unfunded study. Most are fellow students, all are lovely, and most also really like pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). (N.B. I know I should use diacritics, but am too lazy to go copy them and paste them here, so indulge me.) I had never made pho before, though in a cooking class in Saigon I was shown the basic method for pho bo (beef pho). As the grateful recipient of a lovely big 15L stainless steel pot for last summer solstice, what better way to use it than to make pho for loads of people? Well, you’ll see that my lovely pot wasn’t as big as it seemed…

Friday morning, Stuart and I wandered dreamily through Minh Phat (Vietnamese grocery off Victoria St, Richmond) gathering crucial ingredients, then over to a fruit shop for a few missing herbs (esp. sawtooth coriander) and finally the butcher for the meat and bones. I first asked for 4kg of shin bones and was told they didn’t have any. Weird, huh? I accepted this bizarre response and asked for 4kg of flank, which I got (and realised was A LOT of meat!). I then asked for 1.5kg of topside, whereupon the woman serving me lfinally ooked quizzically at me so that I said, “I’m making pho”. She appeared quite excited about this and thrust a bag of beef balls at me, insisting I needed them too. Sure, why not? Finally, she asked me to wait, rushed out back and dragged a huge bag of bones in, pulling four out and telling me, “for you, no charge today.” I was delighted (and she clearly was too – I guess not many Anglos pop in to get ingredients for serious quantities of pho – and I think she must originally have thought I wanted their bones for a dog?), thanked her graciously, paid for the rest (only $47 for all that!) and then Stuart and I lugged our 10kg of meaty goodness back to the car and rushed home.

Dearie me, I wish I’d started the stock earlier, but I think I had extra bone, which made up for a slightly too short cooking time… so now it’s 11:30am, guests will arrive at 7pm, and this stock wants a minimum of 6 hours…

Method & Ingredients

Remember, I was cooking for 20 (and ended up serving 25, with plenty of ingredients except the rice noodles, which ran out for the last 5 of us, but I had some dried to make up the shortfall).

4kg shin bones
4kg flank, cut into pieces about 15cm long
1.5kg topside, sliced thinly
4-5 brown onions
8-12 shallots
2-3 bulbs ginger
6 cinnamon sticks
12 star anise
4 brown cardamom pods
6 cloves
1/2C salt
1/2C sugar
1/2C fish sauce (buy a good brand, which should say “Nuoc Mam Nhi” – any from Phu Quoc are great)
4kg fresh rice noodles
spring onions, finely sliced
sawtooth coriander
coriander
bean sprouts
Vietnamese basil
chilies, sliced
lemons, quartered
chili paste
hoisin
nuoc mam cham (dipping fish sauce: fish sauce, lemon, garlic, chili, sugar)

First, take your bones and soak them in warm water with lemon juice and a generous pinch of salt for about 1/2 hour. This starts to release the blood so you will get a clear stock. Then pop them into boiling water for a further 5-10 minutes, before transferring them to your stockpot full of boiling water. I put them into my 15L pot and simmered them there for about 3 hours, skimming the scum off the top frequently.

While the bones are simmering, lightly bash the cinammon, cloves, star anise and cardamom to break them into smaller pieces, then dry roast them for a few minutes in a (preferably cast iron) frypan (to release more of their oils before adding them to the stock). Put the spices into a muslin bag and drop into the stock.

Next, hold the onions, shallots and ginger over an open flame until chargrilled and set aside to cool. When cool, pull and rub the blackened skins off, cut the onions in half, and pop all of it into a muslin bag. Add these to the stock after about 2 hours.

Next, you’re going to add the flank to cook for 2-3 hours. This is when I realised I needed the bigger pot. Stuart dragged his brewing pot out for me, which is about 40L – it takes up 2 burners but does the trick. 🙂 Add the salt, sugar and fish sauce now. After 2-3 hours, pull the flank back out, pop it into a baking dish with some of the stock and leave to cool.

Once the stock has been simmering for about 6 hours (you can definitely go longer – this is a minimum), pull the bones and muslin bags out and strain it through a piece of muslin into a clean pot. (I was able to put it back into the 15L pot at this stage – and I had added some water when I went into the big pot.) Did I mention that it’s very very helpful to have a second person around when you’re making this much pho? Stuart was very helpful and appreciated!

Your stock is ready! The flank should have cooled, now you can cut it into bite-sized pieces (and I removed a lot of fat whilst doing this – very happy chooks Saturday morning!). Taste the stock and adjust seasonings if you need to with salt, sugar or fish sauce. It’s also common in Vietnam to adjust with msg or ‘pork powder’ or ‘chicken powder’, which are msg-free stock powders (Knorr is a favoured brand in Saigon). I was very happy that I had no need to add any.

As guests are ready to serve, have your flank in one bowl, the topside in another, a pot of boiling water next to the stock, and your rice noodles ready to go, as well as your array of plates of herbs, lemon, bean sprouts, fresh chilies, and chili paste and hoisin. I used Stuart’s brewing sieve to dip the noodles into the boiling water to heat and soften them before placing them into a bowl. Next, I added the raw sliced topside, then boiling stock, then flank pieces before handing the bowl to the grateful recipient to add their own herbs, etc. Voila!

My favourite comment of the evening may have been, “I’d pay $8.50 for this” from a Vietnamese Australian friend, though I did also appreciate, “it tastes just like real pho in Saigon”, even though much of my theoretical work thus far has been contesting notions of authenticity and its instability as a category, let alone its essentialising tendencies… I guess the point is that we all agreed it was rather delish.

I think next time, though, I might cook it for just 10 people!

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

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