Vietnamese Chicken Soup (Pho Ga)

Let’s grab some Vietnamese! If this invokes any imagery at all for you, then it is probably of a steaming hot, intensely flavourful bowl of Nirvana-transporting noodle soup. Originating in the late 19th century, this part Oriental inspiration, part French savoir-faire is as universally admired by yuppie noodle aficionados as it is by exam-cramming students. There is no getting around this – pho is entirely about the broth. If you don’t nail the broth then nothing else matters. Several attempts were required before I managed to crack the extremely stubborn pho nut, but the lessons learned will be to your eternal benefit, as I can guarantee that you will reap praise from an endless chorus of admirers once you have followed these simple, though essential steps.

Much of the recipe is based on Kenji Lopez-Alt’s excellent 30-minute pressure cooker chicken pho; however, I decided to forego the pressure cooker and see what type of results could be had by performing a variation of the consommé method that wouldn’t necessitate egg whites. Briefly, a consommé uses a buoyant net to catch particles of protein and other insolubles that would normally cloud the broth as it boils, yielding an intensely clear bouillon that not only has better textural feel, but visual appeal as well. Separating the layers of the onion provides a trap that catches and holds the unwanted foam and flocculant. Additionally, by keeping the temperature below the boiling point of water, there is minimal agitation to the broth, meaning that the chance of forming a cloudy emulsion of fat, water, and suspended solids is eliminated.

The results are dramatic. If you have ever tried to boil down a left-over chicken carcass with chopped vegetables and a dash of wine, then you were probably left underwhelmed. Not with this recipe. The bouillon is the hard part, and it can be set aside in the fridge for a day or two, or frozen and stored for months. Set it on a counter to thaw, reheat, and serve with freshly prepared chicken, noodles, sprouts, and herbs. I love sriracha. My wife loves sriracha. This may be the only recipe for pho you will ever come across that does not tell you to generously add sriracha. As Sara said: “It is so delicate, and so complex, I don’t want ruin it by adding sriracha.” Add a bit of chopped chilli instead, and read on.

Vietnamese chicken noodle soup

Ingredients (serves 4 large bowls)

For the broth

2 medium yellow onions, halved
1 five centimetre piece of ginger, sliced in half
8 chicken drumsticks
1 cinnamon stick
3 star anise pods
4 cloves
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 tablespoon sized pieces of yellow rock sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 tsp salt
3L water

For the dish

1 large chicken breast, skin on
rice noodles
large handful Thai basil
large handful mint
2 cups bean sprouts
2 cups miscellaneous sprouts (alfalfa, sunflower, etc.)
chopped birdseye pepper
Hoisin sauce
lime wedges
salt
pepper

The first step is to blacken the onion and ginger at high temperature in a cast iron skillet or grill. This will kick off a Maillard reaction that will give a bewitchingly smoky, mesquite aroma that will soak into the soup as the broth develops. Once they are nicely seared, about 5 to 10 minutes, set them aside to cool and place the chicken legs on the same cooking surface and grill each side, 5 minutes each. You don’t want to cook the meat through, only brown the surface for extra flavour. One of the extra benefits of searing the meat is that less protein will be suspended in the broth, increasing both the velvety mouthfeel and the stunning transparency of the pho. Using chicken legs is a brilliant masterstroke by M. Lopez-Alt, and since they are cheap I don’t even bother to try and fish them out before the broth is finished; rather, I let them sit the full two to two and a half hours so the entirety of the flavour will be absorbed, and enough collagen from the bones and connective tissue will break down into gelatine that will provide extra body.

Place the finished chicken legs in the bottom of a 5L cooking pot along with the spices, salt, and sugar. Add 3L of water to the pot, then peel the onion and add it along with the ginger. Now heat the broth to between 90 and 95C (use a thermometer – this is essential). You will see small bubbles forming on the bottom, but the surface will not be significantly disturbed as the broth gently cooks.

While your broth is simmering, turn the oven to 177C (350F) and prepare the chicken breast that will be sliced to accompany the soup. Generously salt and pepper a large chicken breast, then brown the two sides in a large skillet at medium high heat, 5 minutes each side. Place the skillet in the oven for 15 minutes, then let the chicken rest, covered. While the meat is resting, chop your basil and mint, prepare the chillis and sprouts in separate bowls so they can be added at will, and get your noodles soaking. The noodles should soak for at least 20 minutes in luke warm water before being cooked in boiling water for 1 minute, maximum. Once the noodles are finished they can be set aside in fresh, luke warm water until needed. Keeping them in liquid will prevent them from sticking together and will save much aggravation (believe me).

The broth will be done after two to two and a half hours and will not noticeably improve thereafter. Taste intermittently and let your senses guide you. After this amount of time all the flavour has been extracted from the meat, which is consequently left quite flaccid and textureless. I don’t recommend keeping the over-cooked chicken legs, so they can be discarded at this point. Just gently pour the broth into a second, large sauce pot through a cheesecloth-lined sieve or colander, adjust the taste with salt, sugar, and fish sauce, then use immediately to construct your pho. Place the noodles in the bottom of the bowl, top it with the sliced chicken breast followed by the sprouts, herbs, chillis, lime wedges, and Hoisin sauce.

Your work is reduced if you prepare the both on a weekend or on an evening and set aside in the fridge or freezer. Prepare the rest of the bowls and then heat the broth quickly just before serving. Then enjoy a slice of Indochinese heaven.

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