I fell in love in May 2000. Not with Daniela, that had happened about a month before :-). I fell in love, like Anthony Bourdain, with Vietnamese food. On a May Saturday I was getting home from some shopping in Cambridge's city centre and decided to stop for lunch at Pho Coffe House (Reagent street 33a, if you're interested). I had my first ever bowl of Pho, the delicious Vietnamese rice noodle soup, there and it was love at first bite, or better slurp. I had lots of different noodle soups before, always an affordable option for the not-too-well off student, and although most were good none had captured me like Pho. I went back to eat at Pho Coffee House a few times, at least as many as the times didn't manage to get in (the place is really small), and discovered new dishes every one of them as stunning as my first bowl of soup. It was only a matter of time till I bought my first Vietnamese cookbook. There's not many around so after some thinking I decided to go for Mei Pham's Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table.
Since I've read this book parallel to Thompson's, I can't avoid making a few comparisons. While "Thai food" is very detailed, with a slight academic feel to it, the "Vietnamese table" is more personal and warm. It doesn't go as deep in seeking the roots of the cuisine described but still manages to give plenty of information. It is a bit like talking with someone in the kitchen while cooking, homely, cosy and charming. The book is also clearly more beginner oriented, giving plenty of info on ingredients and tools. The recipes are well described, most seem quite in reach of the average home chef :-) and there's always a brief poignant introduction to each one of them. If you like Vietnamese food and look for a recipe source I would go for this book. As for Thai cooking, quite a few original ingredients are needed to get that authentic taste. In this case I have more luck. There are quite a few Vietnamese living in eastern Germany, a remnant of the communist times, and the ingredients are not too hard to find.
Clearly the first thing I had to cook from this book was a nice bowl of pho. The basis for great pho is a great stock (or broth?), so I would always go for a good home-made one. Since I still have plenty of chicken stock I decided to go for a chicken version, pho ga.
I first made the stock:
1 litre chicken stock
3 star anise pods
1/2 tsp peppercorns
1 small yellow onion charred
1 inch ginger charred
3 Tbs fish sauce
2 chicken breasts
1 tablespoon sugar
One would normally make the stock with chicken backs plus the ingredients above. Since I had my stock already I let it simmer for about 1-1 1/2 hours together with all the other ingredients (spices in a spice sachet) except the chicken breasts to get the flavours in the stock. The chicken breasts were added to the simmering stock for about 20 minutes and then taken out, left to cool a bit and then torn into bite sized pieces.
200 g rice sticks
While the stock simmered I softened the rice sticks for 20-30 minutes in water. When the ingredients below were ready I cooked them. Once done they went into a large bowl, I topped them with the chicken pieces and then added the hot stock.
1/2 yellow onion thinly sliced
2 scallions sliced
These should go on top of the noodles straight away but as you can see from the pic I got mixed up and served them with the other ingredients below.
freshly ground pepper
Thai chillies, sliced
Asian basil (which sadly turned out to be plain European basil)
optional: sawtooth coriander (I couldn't find that)
These ingredients should be served at the side so that everyone can add what they want to the soup. Usually sweet chilli sauce and hoisin sauce are served along with these. I tried without as suggested by Mai Pham. I have to say that while I can do without the chilli sauce I find that a dash of hoisin sauce fits very well.
I clearly took a bit of everything and enjoyed my bowl of pho. The sweet, salty, sour and hot components balanced quite well (OK, a bit too much heat but that's my fault, added too much chilli to my bowl) and the fresh herbs, lime and spiced aromas from the stock gave almost the aroma I remembered. Not quite there yet but close. Oh, but I'll try again :-).