Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pho Ga (aka Chicken Pho)

NOTHING, nothing beats the flavor of a good chicken pho (must be the saigonese in me). Almost 5 months since we set off on our central american journey and I need a serious fix.

The longest I've ever gone without was back in '97, a semester abroad in Vienna, Austria (almost half a year). Like one of those sci-fi cave man movies, thawed from ice...first words. Mine was "pho"...only minutes from landing into SFO, parents coming to collect. I've been so grateful to savor all the foods on our travels south...but my heart yearns for a taste of home. To me, pho is gathering around our cluttered kitchen table...char roasted onions, ginger and star anise releasing their aroma into soup's sweet cauldron lapping away on winter's long starry night.

the star  for an authentic broth
(image from

Nothing quite satisfies either. The time to release zippers or unbuckle belts...more room for broth and noodles...a generous gift to the soul like mom's harvest apples.

In my quest to make a good bowl, I've had to go "old school". Back to basics: chicken, stock and noodles (ok, on the noodles, couldn't find the traditional "banh pho" I used pad thai noodles instead). No beloved garnishes like cilantro, basil, sprouts. Here in the remote beach town of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, depending on the day of the week, depending on the grocery store, fresh herbs are often hard to find. I don't mind...managing some how to score hoisin, sriracha and star anise.

I know there are broth purest who don't like over doing it on the customary red and brown condiments...but lordy help me, I love the stuff.

When I brought the bowls to the table, I garnished them with thin slices of onion, black pepper and a wedge of lime. Old school. The boy and I started to quietly and then loudly slurp away...a sumo eating competiton. It was good. Like bread making, I've learned a couple of things...and I still pine for my fresh herbs...but for now, my heart and belly are happy.

I hope you enjoy the recipe (if ever you're in need of a simple pho fix). Buen provecho amigos!



Simple Old School Chicken Pho
Serves 4 - 6

1 large yellow onion (peeled and cut in half)
1 good knob of ginger (crushed with skin)
4-5 star anise
1 chicken (~ 2lbs, cut in half)
10 c of water for the broth
1 package banh pho or any type of flat rice noodles...pad thai works too
½ onion, sliced thinly (for garnish)
¼ lime (for garnish)
Black pepper
Salt (or fish sauce)

You need 2 pots. #1 pot to parboil the chicken. #2 pot for the broth.

Cut the chicken in half. Clean thoroughly under running water. Trim off access fat. Cut off the butt (parson’s nose) since it will release a lot of fat. In a medium/large pot, fill half with water. Place on high heat until the water comes to a boil. Place the chicken in the boiling water for 5-7 minutes until dark brown foam starts emerging. Remove from heat, throw out the water and do another washing of the chicken under cold water. Set aside.

The reason for parboiling is you’re removing the murky swamp water that comes from the chicken. And there's a LOT of it. By parboiling first, you get rid of the cloudy stuff off the bat, ensuring a clear broth. You can skip this step, cook everything in one pot and skim as you go. But I find this one pot method tedious and I'm rather lazy. Checkout this home video on how the chicken is prepped and parboiled (vids 1, 2, 3, 4). I love how the vietnamese woman uses a toaster oven to roast her aromatics.  It's all in vietnamese but I adore the woman (she reminds me of my moms)!

Place the second pot under med-low heat. Add the onion, ginger and star anise. Let them roast for 5-10 minutes. You will start to smell lovely smoky, molassie…star anise. So intoxicating. I love it. Allow the ingredients to brown. You don’t want to blacken because in this method, you don't have to discard the skin. When ready, add 10 c water. Then the chicken that is now nice and clean. Cook under med-low for 30-40 mins depending on the chicken until it’s cooked. Easy does it. If you've trimmed well...there's very little to skim at this point, if at all (...unless you're anti fat). When I've used this method, I've made a clear broth without lifting a spoon to skim.

You don’t want to over cook the chicken. You don't want it to fall off the bone. Rather, you want the chicken meat to be firm. So after 30-40 mins, you can remove the pot from the heat and allow the broth with chicken to continue their romance in the fridge for maximum flavor magic…(oh, and the broth does smell wonderful to the nose the next day!) On the following day, heat the broth, season to taste and use...

OR if you don’t want to wait…add 1 - 1 1/2 tablespoons chicken bouillon to the broth to give it more flavor. (Maggi is something that my family has been using as a secret broth enhancer…shhhh!) Season to taste. Salt or if you have it at hand a couple good dashes of fish sauce. Quick broth done. Tip: any chicken pieces I don't use or cut up right away, I leave it in the broth.

For the noodles, follow instructions. Soak. Cook. Strain. (At least with pad thai noodles ---the noodles I had available at the time, I forgot to soak it, just cooked it longer in boiling water. Big mistake. It ended being a just a wee bit chewier, so I definitely recommend the soak bath at least for pad thai noodles to get the maximum softness. You don't want the noodles breaking apart either or al dente. Balance, young grasshopper.

For the chicken, I wait until I'm about to assemble the pho bowls to cut up the meat. You can either chop or I like to use my fingers to tear into bite size pieces. 

To assemble
Place the strained cooked noodles in a bowl. As much or as little depending on what your guests like. Top with chicken (I like to mix a bit of everything: some breast, good piece of thigh, drumstick meat). Add some of the sliced onions. Cover with hot, hot broth. Some pepper and a good wedge of lime. Serve with hoisin and chili sauce. (Even better, a small plate of fresh herbs...basil, cilantro, mung bean sprouts if you have them...mmmm)

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