Friends! I have just returned from an incredible journey, adventuring in Vietnam. Let me tell you, it was a great dose of perspective + a big bag of exactly what I needed. Travel to me is so many things, a privilege for one; a necessity for another. A means in which I can feed the hunger in my soul – one which sometimes rumbles so loud I wonder if folks in Africa can hear it. I’ve got the bug, the fully encompassing wanderlust.
One of the greatest parts about travelling to countries notorious for having incredible food, is being able to personally verify those claims. Let me tell you, Vietnam did not disappoint! Taking into consideration all of the countries I have visited in my lifetime, China has been my ultimate favorite for street food experiences; Vietnam has bumped in at a near second.
Vietnamese cuisine is very much about balance; having just enough sweet sour, salt and spice. Understanding the marrying of fresh produce, soft slippery rice noodles + incredible pickled vegetables and sauces is key; each component is very important and will without a doubt give your tongue a wild ride. Yeah, I went there.
One of the first meals Jonathan & I ate at a street style kitchen was a somewhat traditional Phở. Savory broth, fresh rice noodles (let me tell you, the rice noodles are like soft pillowy strips of dream matter. Our Western dried versions have got nothing going for them), plenty of herbs, sprouts + lettuce all topped off with two tiny turmeric rolled quail eggs.
This initial bowl of phở was in a somewhat rural area, the woman opened up shop bright and early and kept the soup bowls rolling – chalk full of chicken legs, pork ribs and strips of beef. You can imagine the slight spectacle we made, two vegetarians, pointing and miming – as respectfully as possible – what we were and were not wanting in our bowl of soup. I’m a lover of noodles, pile on the pickled veggies and some fresh herbs and I’m a happy girl, although that wasn’t the easiest to get across. Not that I was expecting nor wanting it to be easy. To me it isn’t quite cultural enough if it’s as easy peasy.
Lucky for a pair of veggies, unlike Chinese street food, Vietnamese street kitchens are loaded with fresh-from-market fruits and vegetables. Even the stalls selling pork spring rolls, charcoal barbecued meatballs & whole grilled crab had huge mounds of fresh noodles, herbs and chili pastes.
This phở recipe is similar to that first bowl we had, slightly tamer on the chili paste but that’s all customizable (another huge bonus!) and is completely vegan aside from the boiled egg. I’m not naive enough to think that the broths we were sipping were vegetarian, certainly a time or two they might have been but culturally (and obviously, when the response to “please, no beef” is “but then it’s just soup!”) that’s just not how they roll. When in
Rome Vietnam, right? Sometimes you have to just go with it. This broth though, I am happy to report is completely bone & meat free.
The star of the show here? Mushrooms. Partly because I love them, but really mushrooms are a great way to get that meaty depth of flavor traditional to the phở broth. The trick is to dry roast them, bring out that earthy richness and then slowly simmer the whole stock for three hours. Although a simple stock can be sped up, phở requires ample time to develop the perfect complexities.
Top with an assortment of fresh herbs – mints, basils, cilantro, perilla. Whatever fresh Asian herbs you can get your hands on, honestly. Here in Calgary we are lucky enough to have a very large and rich ethnic population, grocery stores and markets all over the city hosting many different cuisine specific ingredients.
Perilla for example, a herb that’s very common in Vietnamese cuisine can be found only in a few of the Asian shops. Thai basil (sweet basil is a fine substitute) or peppermint on the other hand, well, those can likely be found in your local grocer. If the thought of heading out and locating birds eye chilies is a deterrent, fear not! Regular dried chili flakes will do the trick. Experiment, it is a soup after all!
- 2 Cups Shiitake Mushrooms
- 1 Large Yellow Onion
- 4 Cloves Garlic
- 4-5 Garlic Chives
- 2 Tablespoons of Coconut Oil
- 2 Star Anise
- 2 Sticks of Cassia (Vietnamese Cinnamon)
- 5 Whole Cloves
- 1" Knob of Ginger
- 7-10 Black Peppercorns
- 2 Liters of Water or Vegetable Stock
- Salt & Apple Juice as Needed
- 1 Package of Rice Noodles (bean, kelp & sweet potato work as well)
- 2 Organic Farm Eggs (Vegans omit)
- 1 Teaspoon Turmeric (Vegans omit)
- 2 Scallions
- 3 Cups of Butter Leaf Lettuce
- Asian Herbs - Cilantro, Thai Basil, Peppermint, Perilla
- Birds Eye Chilies/Chili Paste/Chili Oil
- 1 Lime
- In a large dry pot arrange the mushrooms in a single layer and turn the heat up to medium-high
- Once the pot starts to heat up, swish the mushrooms around a few times so they don't burn, but let them dry roast (they'll sound squeaky when they move around the pot) for at least five minutes. Continue in batches depending on the size of your pot.
- While the mushrooms are roasting, mince the onion, garlic chive and the garlic - set aside.
- Once all mushrooms have been dry roasted, empty them onto a work surface to roughly chop then add the coconut oil to the pan.
- Stir in the onion, chive and garlic, sauteing until fragrant and but not browned.
- Add the water or vegetable stock
- In a tea bag or cheese cloth pouch, add the whole spices and the ginger - toss that into the pot and season with salt. Allow the pot to come up to a boil, leaving it rolling for 10 minutes then cover and simmer for at least three hours. Check the level of the stock now and then, taste it and season as needed with salt and apple juice.
- With about 30 minutes left to simmer, start gently washing the herbs and lettuce. Be very careful with the basil and the mint, essential oils on both basil and mint leaves cause the greens to burn if handled too rough.
- Slice the lettuce into thin strips and tear the herbs from their stems. Arrange in a bowl and set aside.
- Boil a pot of water, adding the rice noodles and turning the heat off - they need only soak to rehydrate.
- Slice and chop the scallions, chilies and lime.
- Add the eggs and turmeric to a small pot, topping with just enough water to cover . Bring the eggs up to a boil, cooking for 6 minutes before cooling and shelling.
- Assembly: Scoop a handful of rice noodles into a bowl, cover with broth and serve immediately along side self-serve style toppings of herbs, lettuce, chilies, fresh lime, scallions and turmeric boiled eggs.
Feed the need, folks. Feed the need. xx