Beyond An Ordinary Noodle

Pho is much more than soup.   My latest piece for Tuoi Tre newspaper looks at some dishes made with the pho noodle that we westerners might miss.   The text follows the link here:

Ask anyone new to the diverse Vietnamese smorgasbord of cuisine which food he or she first sampled, and the answer of highest probability is phở.  Indeed, this national liquid readily flows throughout the streets whether from a mobile vendor here today and gone tomorrow, or at an established shop.  One could even surmise that this dish, which is so commonplace in Vietnam, has achieved an almost cult-like status amongst foodies abroad.  In fact, phở may very well be the only introduction to the “safer” side of the cuisine many casual non-Vietnamese diners will receive in the United States, Canada, Germany and beyond.

Yet no matter where we scarf down our piping hot Vietnam in a bowl, its basic premise remains the same…silky rice noodles, a subtle broth, meat cuts of varying appeal to western palates, and fresh herbs and condiments such as vinegar and hot sauce.   We could spend days chowing our way down the soup menu with the seemingly endless varieties such as chín, nạm, vè dòn and more.  But wait…What what if I told you phở is not just this ubiquitous collaboration of white noodles meeting flavor-infused water so beloved by us all?  Yes, it’s true.  Follow me on a taste adventure as we turn all we thought we knew about phở upside down.

These long ribbons of rice-based origin do not just magically appear in their linguine-like form.  Somewhere behind the scenes they originate in large uncut sheets prior to crossing paths with a knife.  Yes I, probably much like you, never gave much thought to the journey phở noodles undergo before finding their final resting place in that porcelain food vessel steaming before us.  So you can imagine my additional surprise upon first realizing these long noodle strips actually do serve a culinary purpose beyond our familiar chicken and beef brews.

If we take these uncut sheets and use them as a base for rolling up succulent ingredients, we end up with our first stop on the “non-phở” tour.  Phở cuốn is simply a wrap made from these same noodles that have been diverted away from their more usual soup-based home.   Its name literally means “noodle rolling,” and minced pork meat along with herbs are rolled up tightly into semi-translucent cylinders.   Dragging one of these noodle delights through properly spiced nuoc cham imparts saltiness and heat into the awaiting sweet and savory of the rice noodles and meat.  Two words only are needed to describe the end result…simply delicious.

Don’t oversleep or you just might miss a steaming order of another phở based treat, breakfast time bánh cuốn nóng, or pork and diced wood ear mushroom rolled up inside noodle crepes.  Ladles of rice batter are swirled onto a hot griddle, and right before our eyes a solid canvas bubbles forth from the thick white liquid. Herbs such as mint and coriander impart unexpected sophistication and depth into these pork and noodle rolls, and a fish sauce based nuoc cham with cuts of chả trứng, a type of sweet bologna textured pork sausage, is the proper condiment here.

Dieters everywhere beware of our next stop on the phở tour.  Though an order of phở chiên phồng tastes great, it is definitely not on the less filling side.  Stacks of rice noodle sheets cut into small rectangles come to life with a hot oil dunk imparting a richness most likely to tax many a wary waistline. A few minutes swimming around in this heat bath causes what was once white and silky to transform into a pleasing brown and crunchy texture.  The outer layers puff up into air filled morsels while the inner pieces remain soft and chewy.   Stir fried onions, scallions, vegetables, and beef top this mound of fried goodness, and a nuoc cham dipping sauce complete with pickled unripe mango transforms this dish into a proper fung shei potion of sweet, sour, spice and salt.

I’ve saved the best and my favorite of all for our last stop on our tour.  A splendid plate of phở xào mixed with copious amounts of tongue-searing hot sauce is enough to make my brow sweat and my taste buds sing.  Imagine a bowl of beef phở, yet let’s dispense with the broth.  Wok fry what remains along with a few vegetables such as tomatoes and onions, and in a few minutes we have a “soup” of a different kind, proving the liquid wholly unnecessary.  The rice noodles absorb the wonderful nuttiness of the oil while their edges crisp up around middle sections remaining tender and soft.

These various takes on phở leave us rich in taste without sinking our budgets.  On average these dishes cost between VND20,000 and 40,000 (US$1-2).  if we follow the locals to their favorite sidewalk food carts or neighborhood shops.  These four phở based dishes pack a flavorful punch yet are born of few ingredients.  They really do prove the old adage true…simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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