Sometimes you’re watching TV and see something so mouth-watering that you start drooling and eating it yourself becomes a mild obsession. Or maybe that’s just me. One Saturday morning i saw Rick Stein on his Far Eastern Odyssey series making a Vietnamese noodle-based soup dish called pho (pronounced “fur” apparently) on a boat sailing down the Mekong River. I could practically smell the sizzling spices and fresh green herbs through the TV screen. Plus I’m a noodleaholic. Something just so satisfying about slurping a bowl of spicy noodles. To sate this craving, I headed to a Vietnamese restaurant the next day to get a pho fix but left disappointed. My mouth had been expecting KAPOW but instead got MEH. Presumptuously I decided I could do better (despite the fact I’m not Vietnamese, have never cooked Vietnamese food before, have never been to Vietnam) and would have a go making pho from scratch.
Pho is Vietnam’s national dish, with much debate on whether the original influence is from the Chinese or French. Traditionally pho is made with beef (pho bo) or chicken broth (pho ga) that has been cooked for hours, often overnight, squeezing every bit of flavour out of the meat and bones. As I don’t eat meat, the pho I’ve had in restaurants has used vegetable stock which I’ve found insipid.
So off I headed on a culinary adventure with the internet as my guide. Hours of searching the net and I discovered that 1) some people are pretty passionate about pho and 2) fish pho doesn’t exist! All the recipes i found were with fish balls or made with vegetable stock. I knew I wanted to make it with fish stock to pack a full flavour punch so improvised using tips here from Andrea Nguyen, Vietnamese food expert and author. When i tweeted my efforts, I was especially thrilled to get this from her.
This is perfect Sunday cooking. Though the ingredient list seems to go on forever, it is all pretty simple once you’ve got the ingredients prepared. Don’t do it on a day when you’re feeling stressed and allow about three hours from start to finish. As it cooks, the smell is pretty incredible and works a treat whetting the appetite. I did wonder if it would end up being the herbal tea of food (all smell and no substance). It wasn’t.
I have no idea how authentic my fish pho tasted. I do know that it was lip-smackingly delicious.
Fish Pho Recipe
Ingredients for 4 servings
- 1kg fish bones (big fish approx 50cm long)
- Half a big leek
- 2 celery stalks
- 1 medium sized carrot
- 1/2 fennel bulb
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3cm length ginger
- 1 onion
- 6 cloves
- 2 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp fennel seed
- 8 dried red chilli
- 4 cardamom pods
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
- 3 lime leaves
- 1 teaspoon palm sugar (or brown sugar)
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 salmon steak sliced thinly
- 1/2 cup of King Prawns
- 1 litre water
- Basil (Thai basil ideally)
- Baby broccoli
- Spring onion
- Stud the unpeeled onion with the cloves and put on baking tray with the garlic and ginger. Grill on high heat until charred then remove the blackened skin and roughly chop.
- Put the fish bones in a large stockpot with just enough water to cover and bring to the boil. When boiled there will be scum on top. Remove the scum, rinse bones and clean the pot then put the fish bones back in.
- Dry pan roast all the spices in a small frying pan for a few minutes until the fragrances are released and seeds start popping.
- Put all the broth ingredients into the stock pot with the fish bones and add the litre of water. Bring to the boil then reduce heat and slowly simmer for 90 minutes.
- While the broth is simmering, prepare the noodles by putting in a bowl and adding boiling water. Leave for 20 minutes then drain running cold water through them and set aside. Prepare your toppings by slicing/chopping the components as appropriate.
- Sieve the broth and discard all the bits so you’re just left with the clear fish broth. Leave on low heat.
- Stir fry the King Prawns in sesame oil. This should take about two minutes.
- Bring broth to boil. Put noodles in metal sieve and warm by dipping in the boiling broth for a few seconds. Then put in bowl and top with salmon and prawns.
- Serve – let guests add toppings as they please.