I went to Vietnam last November, as you do. I took all these photos of ALL the food I ate but the whole thing was too overwhelming to even think about writing about it here. Since I got back I have been meaning to make pho, my favourite Vietnamese dish. Pho, pronounced 'fa' is a clear broth soup full of noodles, herbs, chilli and the meat of your choice. It is really healthy and has flavour enough to knock your socks off.
My favourite pho memory was when I was in a seaside town called Nha Trang. One morning my new friend Anmol and I trekked out at 6am to go watch the locals go about their morning routines on the beach. It was however pouring down with rain so we ended up being welcomed to join a couple going about their morning coffee ritual at a sidewalk coffee stall.
We sat and chatted with the husband and wife about their lives in Nha Trang and their children who were abroad studying. We were perched on the tiniest plastic childrens stools sipping sweet coffee from tiny glasses. Very little English was spoken by everyone other than the wife, this however did not stop the interaction nor the laughter that filled our morning. Being welcoming and inclusive isn't stopped by any language barrier. This situation was real. Our interactions were real. It was like we too had been living in this town for years and we were just old friends.
By 7am our new coffee friends needed to depart and get on with their work for the day. Before leaving we asked where the best place to get a hot bowl of pho was. The wife pointed across the road to her favourite shop and so there we went.
The thought of having a hot and spicy bowl of noodle soup at 7am makes most people shudder. To Anmol and I this was our favourite type of breakfast, after all when in Rome. Anmol of course laughed when I started rearranging the condiments on the table in order to take a photo. He got used to that side of eating with me pretty quickly.
Pho consists of a hearty and flavoursome broth, either chicken or beef. Rice vermicelli noodles and some meat strips are then added and you then garnish the soup with mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime juice, fresh chilli and coriander. I was told by a local that the more chilli you eat the less likely you are to get bitten by mosquitoes. I have to say it worked a treat. Not one bite when usually I am a mosquito buffet. By Pho bowls were always drenched in fresh chopped chilli, by the end of my trip I was a chilli eating champ.
So after over half a year later I finally get around to making my favourite soup. The thing that was putting me off all this time was making the broth from scratch. I think I thought it would be a lot of effort. When the light bulb to use my slow cooker lit up in my head I committed to the mission.
The broth is the most important part of this whole dish. Making your own really makes a difference. If you really CBF acquiring a whole chicken then buy a good quality chicken stock and boil it away with the other broth ingredients for an hour or two. I picked up this size 13 (1.2kg) table hen (yes it was labelled as a table hen) for a mere $4.99 in the freezer section. A good prepacket chicken stock will cost you more than that ... the eternal time vs money debate then ensues haha.
Just a wee tangent here, frozen chickens kind of freak me out. I pulled this small hen out of the plastic bag. It's rather cruel really. This chicken, this living breathing bird had it's head removed, body scalded and plucked, snap frozen, shoved into a plastic bag then trucked to the nearest supermarket chiller. I then buy this once living breathing creature for nothing more than $4.99. The fact that this life, this bird is worth $4.99 makes me rather sad. Seeing the carcass covered in skin kept reminding me that it was actually once alive. I promptly removed the skin to not only remove some of the fat from the broth but also to clear my conscience.
You need to pre-boil your chicken for a few minutes before starting you broth. This Pre-boil helps to get rid of this weird pinkish brown scum that floats to the top of the pot. After five minutes of boiling, drain the chicken, rinse it then place it in the slow cooker to begin the process.
The small hens lack a little in the meat department. If you plan on feeding a large crowd or just a few hearty appetites then I recommend throwing in a couple of chicken breasts into the slow cooker to increase the meat portion. The chicken breasts will absorb all the wonderful flavours of the broth and slow cook over the course of the 12 hours just like the rest of the chicken.
Pho Ga (Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup)
For the broth:
1 small whole chicken, skin removed
2 chicken breasts (optional)
2 large onions, skinned and chopped in half
3cm of ginger, chopped into 0.5cm slices
4 cloves garlic
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole star anise
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon of fennel seeds (or 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel)
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 litres of hot water (or as much as you can fit in your slow cooker)
2 teaspoons salt
1 packet (400g) of rice noodles, vermicelli or a flat noodle up to 5mm wide will do.
2 cups mung bean sprouts
1 large handful of fresh coriander leaves
1 lime, sliced into wedges
2 red chillis, sliced
2 stalks of spring onion, sliced
4 bok choy, sliced in half lengthways
1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
Start making the broth the day or night before. Take your whole chicken and break off the legs if need be in order to fit everything below the proposed water line in the slow cooker. Place your chicken in a large saucepan full of boiling water. Boil the chicken away for 5-10 minutes to remove the scum. Drain off this water and place the chicken in the slow cooker.
In a small frying pan with a splash of oil, fry the onion halves and slices of ginger flat side down until they start to char slightly. Flip the ginger slices half way through too. Once ever so slightly charred, place in the slow cooker with the chicken.
Add in all the spices and the salt then top the cooker up with the boiling water (if you cant fit all 2L in don't worry, you can add it later once you strain the stock).
Pop on the lid and leave to cook away on high overnight (so like 12 hours).
Once the cooking time is up, strain the contents of the slow cooker through a sieve and into a large bowl or container. Try and skim the fat off the top with a spoon or leave the stock to cool in the fridge then scoop off the fat once it has solidified. Or you could you know, just eat the fat.
Pick at the bones, removing as much meat as you can, shredding it into pieces as you go. Keep this meat stored in the fridge until you want to serve your pho.
Warm up your broth and your chicken meat (if you let it to cool). Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil and cook your rice noodles for a few minutes until al dente. Strain the noodles and divide between the bowls. Bring another pan of water to the boil and cook for bok choy halves for a minute until they turn a bright green then strain and place into the bowls alongside the noodles. Divide the chicken between the bowls as well before pouring over the broth. Make sure you add almost two cups to each bowl so that it comes up well above the noodles. Top each bowl with the mung bean sprouts, fresh coriander, chilli, red onion, spring onion and a squeeze or two of lime juice.