A classic chicken soup may be known as Jewish penicillin, but for a lot of us, a bowl of Vietnam's signature pho is the thing that puts us right – the broth, noodles, herbs, and the refreshing additions of chilli and lemon if you want. Who doesn't love shouldering in to a crowded, brightly lit pho joint for a steaming bowl?
But hey, why stop at soup when it comes to this symphonic combination of flavours? Restaurants around the world are riffing on the basic elements of pho and getting all Frankenpho with it.
Santa Monica's Komodo does a 'phorrito', taking the ingredients of the soup, making sure the meat is juicy enough to evoke a brothy mouthfeel, then wrapping it all up in a tortilla like a burrito.
Luke Nguyen served up 'Pho-guettes' – a bahn mi and pho mash-up – at Sydney's Lunar Markets earlier this year, while Hem Nine Nine in Sydney's Glebe serves souped-up versions with marbled wagyu beef and roasted bone marrow.
Ho Chi Minh City's Relish and Sons does a riff on a pho-burger, with the bun made from patties of fried pho noodles and the burger infused with the crucial soup herbs and spices. Atlas Dining in Melbourne's South Yarra served up a refined beef pho tartare during its Viet incarnation (the restaurant changes cuisine every four months).
Just why do we hold this humble soup to levels of obsessive extreme? Lucky Peach magazine recently dedicated an entire issue to it.
Momofuku's David Chang, who is also the co-editor of Lucky Peach, wrote: "The reason why we love pho is because it's hot, it's salty, it's umami; it's got acid, it's got heat and texture from all the stuff you add in as you're eating."
The one common element most chefs agree on is no matter how freaky you want to get with your pho, "it's all about the stock," emphasises Jerry Mai, executive chef and owner of Melbourne's Pho Nom. Mai sometimes puts a deconstructed pho on the menu, serving a banh mi, filled with pâté, seasoned and blanched meat, mayo and herbs, with the stock on the side to dip into.
Thai Ho, from Melbourne's Ho Chi Mama, makes 'pho'plings' (recipe below).
"The key to making a really tasty pho broth is ensuring that you use the right type of bones to cook it, and that you cook the bones using the right flame," he says.
"It is also very important to ensure that pho is always garnished with spring onions, coriander and fresh onion, as these ingredients really help to draw out the fragrance of the broth."
We all love the slurp of pho broth, but what about the swirl of it in a cocktail glass? Vietnamese diners Uncle (in Melbourne's St Kilda and CBD) serve and bottle their own 'Pho-Groni' – a spiced negroni. Uncle's bar manager Pete Signato took the idea of using chef Dai Duong's discarded pho spices which had soaked up the beefy goodness, to infuse in gin (he had previously experimented with beef jerky vodka). Unhappy with the result, Signato decided to macerate the gin with the unadulterated spice mix instead, hitting the sweet spot after about three months of barrel ageing.
It's the one pho situation where we don't recommend slurping.
25g rock sugar, ground
1 coriander root
1/2 tsp toasted and then crushed coriander seeds
1 toasted black cardamon pods
1/2 small toasted cassia bark
1-2 toasted star anise
25g ginger, charred, skin on
375ml gin (Uncle uses Westwinds' Sabre)
375ml vermouth (Uncle uses Casa Mariol 'Negre' Vermut)
125ml filtered water
Ice, lemon zest and holy basil, to serve
Add all dry ingredients into the gin and steep for at least 24 hours, depending on how spicy you would like it. I find about 30 hours is perfect.
Strain off the gin and hang the sieve over the container for an hour to get all the goodness out of the steeped ingredients. Add the remaining wet ingredients Campari, vermouth, water and stir.Pour into a wooden barrel* and store in a cool, dry space away from direct sunlight. The longer you wait, the richer it gets (for this particular cocktail to still have a good balance between richness and the freshness of the herbs and spices, four months is recommended).
To serve, measure out 90ml and pour over lots of ice. Garnish with a strip of lemon zest and sprig of holy basil.
Makes 1.25 litres (approximately 13 drinks).
*Small two litre barrels are available at some bottle shops or online.
Hochi Mama's Pho'pling
500g pork mince
500g beef mince
1/3 cup finely chopped spring onions (white parts only)
3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 large garlic clove, minced
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp finely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
1/4 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 cup pho broth, cooled to a gelatine-like thickness
70 square or round dumpling wrappers (approximately two packets)
Chinese cabbage leaves, to steam
Combine all ingredients except the pho broth, wrappers and cabbage. Take a small amount of mince and place it in the centre of each dumpling wrapper.
Top each wrapper with a quarter of a teaspoon of pho broth, carefully twisting or pleating the dumpling wrapper edges together at the top, ensuring there are no holes for the broth to escape.
Line a bamboo steamer with cabbage leaves and arrange dumplings. Steam in batches for approximately six minutes, or until cooked through.
Makes approximately 70 dumplings