Vietnamese pho (pronounced “fuh”) happens to be one of the great soups of the world. I eat it all the time.
The other day I thought to myself, “Self: Why is pho so damn good?” I’ll tell you why. This soup has it all: noodles, a mesmerizing broth, onions, various meaty things — usually long-cooked brisket and raw slivers of beef heated through by the broth — an array of fresh herbs to add, crunchy bean sprouts, lime wedges, chiles, and pretty much any sauce you feel like adding. Put simply, pho is the “choose-your-own-adventure” of soups.
It has savory. Sweet. Spicy. Crunchy. Starchy. Herby-bitter. Tangy, even funky if you add fish sauce. Everything our palates desire is in this bowl of soup. That’s why pho is so good. But, I asked myself, why should the Vietnamese have a monopoly on this? Could you not take the principles of pho and translate them into another culture?
Damn straight you can. And I did.
It’s winter, or what passes for winter here in NorCal (Sorry, snowbound Northeast). Winter makes me think Nordic food, which I’ve been playing with a lot lately. What excited me is just how fast I could come up with Scandinavian analogs for all of the things in a bowl of Vietnamese pho.
Pho begins and ends with broth. Pho broth is a wonderful clear base, with a noticeable aroma of star anise and cardamom. Cardamom? You mean the spice so beloved by the Swedes? Perfect. Start with a great broth and add crushed cardamom, or, of you can’t get it, allspice, another Scandinavian favorite. The result is remarkably similar to real pho broth.
You eat pho mostly for the noodles in it, though. Vietnamese pho has long rice noodles, which is fine if you are eating with chopsticks. But if you’ve ever tried to eat long soup noodles with a spoon, you know how futile that is. So my “noodles” became spaetzle dumplings, made with very Norse rye flour. Easy to eat, big flavor.
As for the meat, well, I have lots of duck and goose around, so I went with that.
Vietnamese pho is normally a beef dish, so venison would work well, too. My favorite pho has slow-cooked brisket and raw beef. Easy to replicate by using shredded duck confit and thin slices of goose breast, in this case a whitefront goose. I know, I know, raw? Yes, raw. The meat is cooked by the scalding hot broth you pour over it. By the time you eat it, it’s cooked.
That left the accompaniments, which are vital to good pho. Herbs were an easy one. Vietnamese pho has basil and cilantro. Mine would have dill, chervil, parsley and chives — all herbs that figure prominently in Scandinavian cooking. Something crunchy to replicate the bean sprouts was easy, too: Thinly shaved red radishes, which were both crunchy and colorful.
There are no chiles in Nordic cooking, but they do have horseradish. And freshly shaved horseradish is every bit as stimulating as a chile; it really made the whole bowl of soup pop. Finally, the funky-acid one-two of fish sauce and lime can be approached with my malty, black beer vinegar, or malt vinegar if you don’t have beer vinegar.
Everything adds on itself here. The more elements you bring to it, the better. You want something herby, something acidic, something spicy or sharp, and something crunchy. Let your imagination run wild on this one.
A tip for slicing the goose breast really thin is to freeze it slightly first. Leftover duck confit works well for the shredded meat, if you have some. If not, you can simmer goose legs or duck legs in some of the broth until the meat falls off the bone.
It was an experiment that worked out beautifully. Everything that the Vietnamese version has, only darker, more brooding and wintry, if that makes any sense.
The experience made me think: Could you do this with Italian ingredients? Mexican? French? I bet you could. Our favorite soups are often interactive, allowing us to “doctor” them to suit our personal whims. This soup does that, in one particular way. But there are other potential paths. Follow them.
- 2 quarts duck broth, or beef broth in a pinch
- About 10 allspice berries, crushed (optional)
- 1 onion, sliced thin from root to tip
- 2 cups rye or barley flour
- 1 egg
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Vegetable oil for coating (Use squash seed oil if you have it)
- TO FINISH
- 1/2 pound shredded cooked goose, duck or venison
- 1 skinless goose breast, thinly sliced
- 1 small bunch of parsley
- 1 small bunch chervil or dill
- 1 small bunch chives
- 1 small bunch cress (optional)
- 4 to 8 small red radishes, sliced thin
- Malt or beer vinegar to taste
- Horseradish, for grating
- If you haven't made the broth beforehand, you'll need that first. My recipe is here. You could of course use store-bought beef broth, but it will not be the same. Either way, once you have the broth, bring it to a gentle simmer and steep the allspice or cardamom in it for at least an hour. If you tie the spices up in a cheesecloth bag, it's easier to fish them out later -- and you can stew the onion in the broth at the same time. Otherwise, you will need to strain the broth and then stew the slice onion for 20 more minutes or so, until they soften.
- While the spices are steeping in the broth, put a large pot of water on to boil for the dumplings. To make the dumplings, mix everything but the oil in a bowl, adding enough milk so the batter is about as loose as pancake batter. Use a colander with wide holes or a spaetzle maker to drop the batter into the boiling water. Boil until they float, then 1 minute more. Remove with a slotted spoon and put them in one layer on a cookie sheet. Drizzle some oil over them so they don't stick.
- By now you should be ready to rock. Set out the herbs, radishes, horseradish and vinegar on the table where everyone can grab them. Get a bowl for everyone. Put some dumplings in each bowl, then some of the shredded, cooked goose meat. Lay some of the thinly sliced goose breast on everything. Bring the broth with the onions still in it to a rolling boil. Pour over the soup
NOTE: Prep and cook times assume you have broth and leftover meat handy. I use this recipe for duck broth.