Racha Noi | Phuket, Thailand
In a Nutshell (and do not use nutshells when making Pho):
Pho—more or less pronounced “fuh”—is the traditional noodle soup of Vietnam. I won’t go into detail about the history of the dish, because I’d inevitably get it wrong. Nor will I get into flowery descriptions of its complexity or simplicity or the way it “approaches the palette”. Pho is not unfamiliar to most Westerners who live in areas with Vietnamese people. Which is pretty much anywhere.
Generally, Pho consists of four things: the broth, the noodles, the meat, and the vegetables. Sounds pretty simple. But what makes Pho so special is the way the different ingredients are added at different times during the process. Each element tends to retain its unique qualities. And that’s what makes Pho awesome.
It’s All About The Broth:
For my first try at the Pho broth, I did some ad-hocking. I had prepared a basic chicken broth from bones and parts left over from a previous meal, which I combined with more water and “sour crab stock” that I found at a local market. With a little salt, this made for a soup that honestly could have stood on it’s own. But having talked to a few people around town, I added two components that pushed it over the edge: charred onion and charred ginger. Not having an oven here, I roasted a few chunks of onion and ginger over an open flame, and when they were fully blackened, I threw them in the pot to boil slowly. Maybe it made the broth more authentic, maybe it just made me feel more hardcore. Either way, it added a degree of deliciousness.
After about an hour of boiling this down, I strained the liquid, threw away the solids, and put it back on the fire. Then I threw in about a half a pound of shrimp. Low heat, another 20 minutes or so, and the soup was ready to go, complete with meat.
The Noodle Issue:
In my limited experience in SE Asian markets, I have found that there are 7 million varieties of noodles. Typically, Pho is made with rice noodles, but I opted for dried egg noodles that had been made with carrots and cabbage for color variety. The reason I did this was because I have a particularly picky four-year-old food critic to please, and frankly… having the choice of different colored noodles just makes freaking sense. For the Pho purists still reading this, you can now comfortably take your leave and go surf other cooking sites. But as this was my first attempt at Pho, and because it’s just the way I cook, I can assure you that moving forward, I will try any and every kind of noodle I find.
This is what makes Pho so wonderful. In a typical Vietnamese restaurant, you will be served a bowl of piping hot broth and meat, alongside another bowl of veggies and herbs. Sometimes the meat is served raw on the side, the idea being that it will sufficiently cook within the soup. The green stuff might consist of anything from whole basil leaves to stalks of cilantro. And of course, bean sprouts. You add what you want, however much you want, to the soup.
These ingredients are both cooked and not cooked. Had they been boiled down in the broth, they would certainly have affected the flavor of the soup. But the idea with Pho is to add the greens and herbs at the last minute, so that they add flavor the broth, but they also retain their own characteristics when it’s time to eat. Imagine the difference between basil that’s cooked into a pesto sauce versus basil served fresh with mozzarella and tomatoes. This is somewhere in between.
For mine, I included fresh basil, cilantro, mint, been sprouts, green onions and a couple other whole herbs that I have no idea what are. They smelled good.
Last But Not Least—The Spice:
I have yet to eat anywhere in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, (or the continents of Africa and South America) and not be offered a side of fire. My current favorite condiment is the combination of vinegar, soy sauce and raw chiles. If it gets too hot, fresh squeezed lime takes the edge off and adds a bit of refreshment. I like a lot of lime, but I also like a meal to clear the sinuses, so I just add a lot of everything. Which just makes sense for a dish like Pho. Again, uniquely it’s own thing, but entirely customizable.
The Perfect Meal:
Yum yum yum. Suffice it to say, the reviews were outstanding. Even Siena Kaya—a connoisseur of chicken nuggets and peas—said, “Daddy, this is the bestest dinner ever.” While I might disagree with her on that, I’ll take it tonight.
Though I have promised my family that I won’t, I would be content to eat Pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of my life, save only for those opportunities to discover new dishes from around the world. There are infinite varieties of this stuff to suit your mood. Pho can be a filling warm-up on a rainy day, serve as a refreshing alternative to the fried, baked, and sauce-laden foods we’re so accustomed to in the West, soothe a hangover, inspire you to drink more, and perhaps save the world. I would vote for Pho for president, or prime minister or whatever. Once again, apologies to the purists, and I encourage you all to seek this dish out. Or be hardcore like me and prepare some Pho on your own!
We touched down in Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday night, around 11pm. Tara’s principal, Gary, was at the airport to meet us and our 14 duffel bags and 3 guitars. From the airport to our hotel in South Saigon, Siena Kaya counted 605 motorbikes. I call them “motorbikes” for two reasons: 1, there is an even mix of motorcycles, mopeds and scooters—some of the scooters have clutches (like motorcycles) and some of the motorcycles have auto transmissions (like scooters) and it’s impossible to distinguish them from their body styles; and 2, that’s what everyone else calls them.
The first night in town was rough. The kids had been fantastic for the 22 hours of travel; they slept off and on, rarely complained. Light years above the dreadful trip we had anticipated. Siena Kaya is a natural when it comes to this; she’s been through countless airports and customs lines, and has a healthy number of stamps in her passport for a 4 year-old. But even Dom was a trooper. He seemed to understand that there wasn’t much he could do about his circumstances, and went with the flow. We’ll see how he approaches the trip back next summer, at almost 2 years old.
But neither was quite ready to go to bed when all the clocks back home struck 1pm. The second night was similar, in how the kids were adjusting to the time difference, but a little more interesting… In an effort to get the kids to sleep so that Tara could face another long day of house-hunting, I strolled both kids up and down the streets of District 7 by moonlight for hours. Then, exhausted, I decided to take a shower.
Big mistake. Some of Tara’s colleagues had warned us of the slippery tile floors all over Vietnam. In fact, one of their own kids had already broken a tooth in their bathroom. Well, at 3am, after a few beers and a few sweltering walks with the kids, I was simply in no shape for a shower. Sure enough, as I climbed out and reached for the towel, lost my footing and next thing you know, everything went black. I came to almost immediately to find Tara helping me up, holding a towel to my eyebrow. Busted wide open, about 3 ½ inches across. Fortunately, Gary—kind man that he is—showed up within minutes and drove me to the ER, where two very serious medics on the graveyard shift sewed me up. 7 stitches in less than 30 minutes.
The third night was great. We all fell asleep at 7pm and slept through till 6 in the morning. I dare say that the jetlag has pretty much worn off and we’re close to a normal schedule. The heat still takes it out of the kids so it looks like naps might be a part of our lifestyle again, but this would be a welcome little change.
Tara has narrowed the house search down from 16 to two, so we all went out this afternoon to check out the final choices. Both apartments are beautiful. 3 floors each, with ample bedrooms and bathrooms and gorgeously decorated. SK and I chose apartment #1 over Tara’s preference of #2, and we’ll be putting a bid on it tomorrow morning. Hopefully it will work out and we can move out of our little hotel room and settle in. Pics to come soon.
So far so good. The climate is right up our alley (at least for Tara and I; the kids will just have to adjust.) The food is incredible. And those are really our only criteria when it comes to falling in love with a new country. I wouldn’t presume to make any judgments about the culture so early in this new adventure, but we have no complaints to speak of. The language is a challenge; very few people we’ve encountered seem to be even conversational in English, but that’s our problem, isn’t it? Personally, the lack of any real presence of Al Qaeda—or affiliate thereof—is a big plus for me. I’m sure the fam will come to appreciate this over time, as well.
More to come as we gradually settle in to South Saigon!
The Philippines is a country to I hope to get back to soon. Not a lot of time here, and I only got to see the Mindanao region. What I did see was strikingly beautiful. Not just picturesque, but inspiring.
When you’re face-to-face with utter poverty and cruel brutality, and you witness human beings finding happiness and hope in the midst of it all, you can’t help but be humbled. These are people who are far stronger than I am, who have no time for cynicism, and who consistently teach me the meaning of civilization.
(And of course, the team on the ground here is top notch!) Suffice it to say, I’ll miss it here.
Next stops: Bangkok > Addis > Nairobi > Burundi > Kigali. Shooting youth programs in Rwanda. Can’t wait to get back to Africa!
Flight from IAD to Tokyo was long. Not the longest I’ve done, but the longest in awhile. About 13 hours.
First, I offered my seat to the old Japanese lady sitting next to me. Well, to her sister who was 15 rows away. The lady didn’t understand how she and her sister got seated so far apart. I told her I once traveled to Honduras with my wife and daughter, and they tried to put us all in different sections of the plane. My daughter was about to turn 3, but Continental Airlines left it to us to work that little detail out. I don’t think the lady understood a word I said.
I switched seats with her sister and ended up in the bulkhead, which is the First Class of coach. At least is to me, at 6’4″. I even got a blanket from the first class section (way better than the bullshit “coach” blankets) after giving mine away and then realizing that the cabin would be running at 45 Farenheit.
Still trying to determine which religion one would subscribe to after such good fortune—if one were looking for a religion in a hurry. Karma seems obvious, so maybe Hinduism, Buddhism? Jesus preached about giving everything away. The Koran tells of those who fail to help the meek (in this case, the cold with the bullshit blankets.) Me, I was just sticking to Travel-light-eology.
In all, it was not a bad flight. I think JFK to Johannesburg took something like 23 hours, in 1998 hours. That’s the kind of flight where you have to get up, walk around, chat it up with the fellow miserati… I don’t know, start a business or something.