The Pho Cookbook (Photo by John Lee. Copyright John Lee Pictures)
In Vietnam, when Andrea Nguyen was five years old, she impressed her parents--and the owners of their local pho shop--with her noodle-soup dexterity. Chopsticks in one hand, soup spoon in the other, she scooped and slurped like a pro, emptying her bowl of aromatic beef broth, slippery rice noodles, and slices of meat with an ear-to-ear grin.
A year later, in 1975, Nguyen's family left Vietnam as refugees, finding a new home in Orange County. "We gained freedom," said Nguyen, "but we lost pho shops." The shops, restaurants, and markets that would become Little Saigon were still some years away. Instead, homemade pho became a Sunday-morning family staple as her mother traded tips with other new immigrants, learning how to reproduce the tastes of home with unfamiliar ingredients in a new place.
Decades later, that soup-slurping girl has become one of the Bay Area's best-known and best-respected experts on Asian home cooking. She's a popular cooking teacher and the author of numerous cookbooks, including The Banh Mi Handbook and Asian Dumplings. Her many fans follow her writings (and travels) on her website, Viet World Kitchen and she's become the go-to Asian cooking guide at the high-tech DIY cooking site ChefSteps, with recipes for Shanghai soup dumplings and a post-Thanksgiving turkey pho. She added a thoughtful, measured voice to the clamor over cultural appropriation in cuisine with an NPR essay Don't Call It the New Ramen: Why Pho is Central to Vietnamese Identity.
Years of teaching have given her a sixth sense of where and how a home cook might stumble in navigating unfamiliar ingredients and tricky techniques, and so her books are filled with clear, easy-to-follow explanations and foolproof troubleshooting. And for those who want to know the why as much as the how, she's an eager and diligent researcher and storyteller. Her books are a valuable resource for anyone interested in the complex social and geographical history of deceptively simple dishes we might take for granted in cosmopolitan, diversely populated cities like San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose.
Her latest book, The Pho Cookbook, was released by Ten Speed Press on February 7, 2017. We caught up with Nyugen by phone from her home near Santa Cruz.
Bay Area Bites: When did you first start working on The Pho Cookbook? And why pho, now?
Andrea Nguyen: The Banh Mi Handbook came out in 2014, so I probably started talking about this one in early 2015. I'd been teaching pho classes in person and online at Craftsy for a long time, and a lot of my students kept saying that I should write a book about pho. My first reaction was "Why?" I had two recipes that I taught; I didn't think I had much to say. But my publisher, Ten Speed Press, suggested that I think about it; they were confident that I'd have enough to say. I realized I'd been researching pho for a while, and also thinking and writing about my relationship to it. Especially after we left Vietnam when I was six years old, my family didn't have many possessions. We just had our memories.
Bay Area Bites: When were you finally able to go back to Vietnam?
Nguyen: I've been going back since 2003. One of the first things I had on my first trip back to Hanoi was pho. Things were still sleepy there then. We went directly from the airport to a tiny little pho place I'd read about somewhere. It was very small, definitely locals only, with low wooden benches. Everyone had all their belongings on their laps, because there was no place to put them. You just leaned over your bowl and ate. My husband was the only white person there, and I was obviously a foreigner too, but two older men on the benches across from us kept nodding and smiling, approving of my husband eating pho. We have pho nearly every morning when we go back.
Bay Area Bites: Is the pho you make at home different from what's served in Vietnam now?
Nguyen: In 2008, I had a chance to go back to Vietnam on a press trip. I really wanted to go to the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. There are two women who have been cooking there since the 1960s. I was able to go into the kitchen and meet them, and they told me they had read my book [Into the Vietnamese Kitchen] and that I had to stop using yellow onion in my pho! They told me only to use shallots, and not to put sugar in my broth [a South Vietnamese tradition] if I wanted to make a true Hanoi pho. But when my mother came here, shallots were hard to find and too expensive; yellow onions were what she could get. She would get on the phone, and she and her friends would trade tips and secrets; they gathered intel and that's how they put dishes together. So this book is really a combination of American and Vietnamese recipes.
Bay Area Bites: Is pho evolving? I love how you describe certain flavors (and dishes) as "pho-ish" and how, as a cook, you know you've got it right--whether it's broth or a stir-fry or even a cocktail--when it has that certain "pho-ish" quality, that essence or spirit of pho.
Nguyen: It's a very creative dish, it keeps evolving. I want people to become part of the pho story. It started 100 years ago; now, in Los Angeles, there are pho cocktails and pho burritos. In Brooklyn, I've had pho soup dumplings and pho beef dip sandwiches. In Hanoi, I've seen fried pho, where the noodles were batter-coated and deep-fried. You can get brown rice noodles here, but I've seen them in Vietnamese supermarkets, too. There are dried noodles, instant pho powders, instant noodle kits. It's not fixed, it's a very modern dish that people can plug into at all levels and cook, whether or not they want to go to Asian markets.
Bay Area Bites: You have a seafood pho, and several vegetarian and vegan versions, too, which seems very appropriate to the Bay Area.
Nguyen: When my mother heard about my seafood pho, she said "I hope you never put THAT in the book!" But it's delicious, and I've had lobster pho, pho with all kinds of seafood. And Vietnam has tons of Buddhists [who don't eat meat], and they need pho too! People need to push their pho-rizons.
Bay Area Bites: Your book taught me that the word "pho" means both the traditional brothy soup and the rice noodles themselves. The book includes numerous non-soup recipes, from noodle-based stir-fries to rice-noodle rolls, as well as some inventive salads and dipping sauces. In Vietnam, pho is mostly a breakfast or quick lunch dish; in fact, in the book, you tell a story of making a special trip to Nam Dinh, the birthplace of pho, but missing out because by 9AM, when you arrived, all the pho shops had sold out for the day. Did you have to adjust the book to match how American cooks (and eaters) approach this dish?
Nguyen: I found that, during my teaching, I got a lot of questions after the class from students saying "I want to show my friends how I'm really good at making pho now. What else can I serve?" They were asking how they could entertain with pho. So I added snacks, appetizers, Vietnamese coffee, even cocktails.
Bay Area Bites: What's the audience for this book? Who's going to read it?
Nguyen: People who are really interested in making pho! I think it starts with people who have eaten it in neighborhood restaurants, who liked it and wanted to figure it out. It's beef noodle soup; it can't be that complicated. Over the years, I've talked to thousands of people who ask me questions about Asian cooking, about sourcing ingredients, about making food that's unfamiliar. There's so much intimidation about this. I try to take a certain Home Depot approach, like "You can do it, and I can help!" As a cookbook author, you're really just there to coach people along. If they're happy, I'm thrilled. The Quick Chicken Pho is a great gateway recipe. Then there's the "real" restaurant-style recipe, with homemade broth, and the "middle path" of the pressure-cooker recipes, for people who don't have a lot of time but still want to DIY. I hope it makes pho accessible to a lot of different people. In Vietnam, it's a food for everyone.
On Feb. 16, Andrea Nguyen will be signing books at Omnivore Books, 3885a Church St., San Francisco. 6:30-7:30pm, free.
On Mar 8, Andrea Nguyen will be doing a cooking demonstration and tasting at the JJCC SF, 3200 California St, San Francisco. 7pm, general admission tickets $18.
Recipe: Quick Chicken Pho (phở gà nhanh)
Great for pho beginners, this recipe is also terrific for cooks in a hurry. It takes less than 45 minutes, during which you’ll doctor up store-bought broth so it says, “I’m pho-ish.” Choose a broth that tastes like chicken, such as Swanson brand, which is less fussed up and easy to manipulate. You need two 14.5-ounce (411 g) cans or one 32-ounce (907 ml) carton. Stocked at many supermarkets, La Baleine sea salt, Annie Chun pad Thai rice noodles, and Megachef fish sauce work well for this recipe.
Makes 2 servings
3⁄4-inch (2 cm) section fresh ginger
2 medium-large green onions
1 very small (.5 oz | 15 g) bunch cilantro sprigs
1 1⁄2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 whole clove
3 1⁄2 to 4 cups (840 ml to 1 l) low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups (480 ml) water
1 (6 to 8 oz | 180 to 225 g) boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh
About 1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
5 ounces (150 g) dried narrow flat rice noodles
2 to 3 teaspoons fish sauce
About 1⁄2 teaspoon organic sugar, or 1 teaspoon maple syrup (optional)
Optional extras: Bean sprouts, chile slices, mint sprigs, Thai basil, hoisin, sriracha, or Ginger Lime Dipping Sauce (see Note below)
Peel then slice the ginger into 4 or 5 coins. Smack with the flat side of a knife or meat mallet; set aside. Thinly slice the green parts of the green onion to yield 2 to 3 tablespoons; set aside for garnish. Cut the leftover sections into pinkie-finger lengths, bruise, then add to the ginger.
Coarsely chop the leafy tops of the cilantro to yield 2 tablespoons; set aside for garnish. Set the remaining cilantro sprigs aside.
In a 3- to 4-quart (3 to 4 l) pot, toast the coriander seeds and clove over medium heat until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the ginger and green onion sections. Stir for about 30 seconds, until aromatic. Slide the pot off heat, wait 15 seconds or so to briefly cool, then pour in the broth.
Return the pot to the burner, then add the water, cilantro sprigs, chicken, and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to gently simmer for 30 minutes.
While the broth simmers, soak the rice noodles in hot water until pliable and opaque. Drain, rinse, and set aside.
After 5 to 10 minutes of simmering, the chicken should be firm and cooked through (press on it and it should slightly yield). Transfer the chicken to a bowl, flush with cold water to arrest the cooking, then drain. Let cool, then cut or shred into bite-size pieces. Cover loosely to prevent drying.
When the broth is done, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer positioned over a 2-quart (2 l) pot; line the strainer with muslin for superclear broth. Discard the solids. You should have about 4 cups (1 l). Season with fish sauce and sugar (or maple syrup), if needed, to create a strong savory-sweet note.
Bring the strained broth to a boil over high heat. Put the noodles in a noodle strainer or mesh sieve and dunk in the hot broth to heat and soften, 5 to 60 seconds. Lift the noodles from the pot and divide between the 2 bowls.
Lower the heat to keep the broth hot while you arrange the chicken on top of the noodles and garnish with the chopped green onion, cilantro, and a sprinkling of pepper. Taste and adjust the broth’s saltiness one last time. Return the broth to a boil and ladle into the bowls. Enjoy with any extras, if you like.
Notes: For a Ginger Lime Dipping sauce to dip the chicken into as you eat, combine 1 packed tablespoon peeled and finely chopped ginger, 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, generous 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce, and 1 teaspoon finely chopped seeded Fresno or jalapeño chile. Rest 15 minutes before serving.