You can order this noodle-rich broth almost anywhere in Seattle, but there are oodles of benefits to cooking it yourself.
A STEAMING BOWL of aromatic pho is a staple of Seattle’s food scene, a feature of practically every restaurant strip in town. Over the years, pho has grown from a niche ethnic food into a signature one, to the point where we know the go-to pho stops of public figures from Tom Douglas (Pho Bac) to Macklemore (Than Brothers).
There’s a reason for all of our pho-bulous options: Washington state has the third-highest number of Vietnamese immigrants in the country, by recent counts, a legacy of former Gov. Dan Evans welcoming refugees here after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Do residents of other areas with a large Vietnamese population feel so possessive about the dish? I posed that question to Andrea Nguyen, author of “The Pho Cookbook” ($22, Ten Speed Press), who lives in California but has spent plenty of time cooking and eating here. She said different areas have different characteristics.
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In Orange County, she says, “home of the granddaddy of Little Saigons,” people tend to roam around and search for the best pho spots.
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“Houstonians adore their Texas pho, which is delicious. My guess is that Texas pho benefits from the local cattle industry,” she writes in an email.
“Seattle, on the other hand, is at the edge of the Pacific and is part of the fluid exchange of flavors and foodways with Vietnam. Seattle is closer to the pho motherland. When it’s dreary in Seattle and I tuck into a bowl of pho, it reminds me of eating it in Hanoi during the winter.”
Pho’s such a bargain when dining out (an issue that spurs some debate), is there any reason we should prepare it ourselves when it’s available on every corner?
“Pho is a have-it-your-way food, so making it at home is the best way to get what you want,” Nguyen says. For her, that includes chiles that are in better shape than the lackluster ones at most pho joints, and garnishes that are to her liking, like old-school mint.
While preparing pho can be time-intensive, most of that time is passive. And, she says, “The process of making pho, charring the onion and ginger, then checking in on the pot as it simmers, fills my kitchen with the smells and sensations of Vietnam. Eating homemade pho is the ultimate reward of that effort.”
She also notes it’s not an either-or.
“Though I make plenty of pho, I also go out for it because it’s fun. I like to try someone else’s take on pho, ponder how I may up my game.”
In working through Nguyen’s book, there are some clear advantages to the home-cooked version, including a vegetarian pho that’s many notches above the ones most restaurants offer. Home cooking allows for sides and condiments that aren’t otherwise available, like Nguyen’s home version of Cholimex, a tomato-chile sauce not distributed in the United States. There are also extra goodies, like the fat strained from the top of homemade broth, which can be used for follow-up dishes like pho fried rice.
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The full endeavor can take time, including simmering broth for a few hours, putting together garnishes and seasonings, and potentially even making your own fresh rice noodles rather than using the standard dried version. But, as Nguyen shows, pho can also be as simple as you like, including a swift 40-minute version using boxed broth.
And, if you can get pho everywhere else in town, I guess, why not also get it in the place you most often eat?
Quick Chicken Pho
Makes 2 servings
¾-inch piece of ginger
2 medium-large green onions
1 very small (½-ounce) bunch cilantro sprigs
1½ teaspoons coriander seeds
1 whole clove
3½ to 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
1 (6- to 8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh
About ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
5 ounces dried, narrow, flat rice noodles
2 to 3 teaspoons fish sauce
About ½ teaspoon organic sugar, or 1 teaspoon maple syrup (optional)
Garnishes (optional, such as bean sprouts, mint sprigs, Thai basil sprigs, rice paddy herb sprigs, lime wedges, and/or thinly sliced Thai chile, jalapeño, Fresno or serrano chiles)
1. Peel, then slice, the ginger into 4 or 5 coins. Smack with the flat side of a knife or meat mallet; set aside. Thinly slice the green parts of the green onion to yield 2 to 3 tablespoons, and set aside for garnish. Cut the leftover sections into pinkie-finger lengths, bruise, then add to the ginger.
2. Coarsely chop the leafy tops of the cilantro to yield 2 tablespoons; set aside for garnish. Set the remaining cilantro sprigs aside.
3. In a 3- to 4-quart pot, toast the coriander seeds and clove over medium heat until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the ginger and green-onion sections. Stir until aromatic, about 30 seconds.
4. Slide the pot off heat, wait 15 seconds or so to briefly cool, then pour in the broth. Return the pot to the burner, then add the water, cilantro sprigs, chicken and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to gently simmer for 30 minutes.
5. While the broth simmers, soak the rice noodles in hot water until pliable and opaque. Drain, rinse and set aside.
6. After 5 to 10 minutes of simmering, the chicken should be firm and cooked through (press on it, and it should slightly yield). Transfer the chicken to a bowl, flush with cold water to arrest the cooking, then drain. Let cool, then cut or shred into bite-size pieces. Cover loosely to prevent drying.
7. When the broth is done, strain it through a fine-mesh strainer positioned over a 2-quart pot; line the strainer with muslin for super-clear broth. Discard the solids. You should have about 4 cups. Season with fish sauce and sugar (or maple syrup), if needed, to create a strong savory-sweet note.
8. Bring the strained broth to a boil over high heat. Put the noodles in a noodle strainer or mesh sieve, and dunk in the hot broth to heat and soften, 5 to 60 seconds. Lift the noodles from the pot, and divide between the 2 bowls.
9. Lower the heat to keep the broth hot while you arrange the chicken on top of the noodles, and garnish with the chopped green onion, cilantro and a sprinkling of pepper. Taste and adjust the broth’s saltiness one last time. Return the broth to a boil, and ladle into the bowls. Enjoy with garnishes if you like.
From Andrea Nguyen’s “The Pho Cookbook”