Finding Pho!

(jump to recipe)

Did you know that all the good “Pho” puns are taken? What the pho!

Anyway, over a year ago, we traveled to Sri Lanka through the always-amazing Black Swan Journeys based out of Pune, India. Since then we visited 3 more countries with them and I’m still working off the pounds I gained from (cooking and) eating my heart’s content in those fantastic countries (Maldives, Georgia, and Azerbaijan)! Black Swan Journeys specializes in highly customized, curated tours (culinary tours being just one of the many types), and their famous culinary tour in Vietnam entitled “Finding Pho” is coming up next month. After seeing these videos, I want to jump on the next flight out to join them! But considering we came back from Hawaii not 2 months ago, and the fact that our wallets and waistlines don’t always allow last-minute escapades half way across the world, we’ll have to settle for finding our “Pho” bliss here.

Luckily, we recently acquired an Instant Pot that makes “Finding Pho” both cheaper and faster than getting to Vietnam from California! But if you are anywhere near Vietnam, you have no excuse! While the folks on the culinary tour will find things much bigger than Pho in Vietnam, we’ll temporarily make our peace with the Pho concocted here, with some Vietnamese Spring rolls for company (and crunch). This will do for now, although I hope we get to find ourselves (and Pho) in Vietnam soon enough!

Until that happens, let’s talk Pho (pronounced “fuh”)! I love me some good Pho – a comforting bowl of mixed textures, balanced flavors with a fragrance that can banish the worst of colds! The word “Pho” actually refers to the noodles; “Pho Bo” is Pho made with a beef broth and is more common in Vietnam, and “Pho Ga” (what I’ve made here) is Pho made with a chicken broth. Regardless, the original recipe requires hours and hours of cooking and monitoring, and what you get outside in restaurants is usually passable, so, not a lot of motivation to attempt this at home. Then again, sometimes it has vague ingredients, and tastes you can’t recognize, but the Indian in me knows that you can doctor anything up with the squeeze of a lime, chopped cilantro and sliced jalapeños, to make the funkiness go away!

With a pressure cooker or the Instant Pot, the cooking time is reduced to a fraction, but not the flavor. You can fine tune the flavors to your liking with the whole spices and choice of meat(s), and amp up the flavor further with a variety of toppings that can be customized for each bowl.

My research indicated that the basic steps are the same regardless of the cooking equipment: char the whole spices (cinnamon, coriander, star anise, cloves, cardamom) and aromatics (fresh ginger, onions) on an open flame, a grill or a broiler (or use a blow torch if you are fancy), add them to a giant pot with water, rock sugar (or brown sugar) and the cuts of meat you prefer, and cook forever, skimming the fat from time to time. Once the meat has done it’s part for the pho, take it out, and cube/shred it after it taking off the bones. Strain the broth. Warm up rice noodles in hot broth, pile on the meat and toppings, and slurp away!

As for the noodles: the rice noodles I used were pre-cooked and required just a couple minutes in boiling hot water and a cool rinse off.

Rice stick noodles, pre-cooked

If the noodles you are using are the dehydrated kind, which require soaking in warm water for 30 minutes or so, start that process off before the broth.

I referred to a few recipes since this was my first time making Pho but overall I followed the basic guidelines mentioned above.

I broiled the aromatics in the oven instead of charring with a blow torch or sautèing them in a pan:

From the top, clockwise: a stick of cinnamon, coriander seeds, small cardamom pods, cloves, large cardamom pods, star anise seeds
Whole spices get on a sheet pan with onion layers and smashed ginger coins; I nestled them so they wouldn’t accidentally burn! Broil on LO for 5-6 minutes.

I used bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, with some apple chunks for sweetness and balance, and fish sauce for the salty kick:

Pho broth: Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, white rock sugar, fish sauce, salt, cilantro, apple chunks

…And my ‘forever’ was more like 30 minutes (unlike the 30 minutes at the DMV which feel like forever):

Into the Instant Pot it goes with 6 cups of tap water; to be pressure cooked.

After the cooking is complete and the pressure is completely released, we take the chicken pieces out of the hot broth, strain it and skim the fat if desired. Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, take the meat off the bones and shred it and that’s it – we have the noodles, the meat and the broth!

Shredded chicken

Now let us talk toppings: Our topping la-la-land included (top to bottom) bean sprouts, basil leaves, thinly sliced red onions, cilantro sprigs (tough stems removed), lime slices, thinly sliced jalapeños, and of course, Sriracha:

Toppings galore

You can choose toppings and their quantities to your liking to customize your bowl:

Pho and all the fixins
Add the noodles..
..then the shredded chicken..
..add your favorite toppings..

Slurp until you run out on rainy afternoons – it’s doctor recommended!

While Pho is certainly a meal in itself, I also made a few Vietnamese spring rolls with shrimp. I’ve been wanting to make them for so long, this is probably the 4th time I bought the rice paper! The last 3 times I ended up tossing it out since in the past, I always lacked 1 or 2 key ingredients to pull the whole thing off, it went closer and closer to the back of the kitchen cabinet, and then somehow, I always had to move. I think the 4th pack of rice paper won’t survive the next move either but not for the same reason – these are such a treat!

The fillings can be literally anything you want as long as you can get them to stay in there together. It’s basically a handheld salad.

Left: Rice paper rounds; Right: Cooked vermicelli noodles, cooked shrimp, mint leaves, basil leaves, tofu matchsticks, carrot matchsticks, bean sprouts, red bell pepper matchsticks

The prep is a bit tedious but the result is so satisfying, it’s totally worth it! The rolls are also not too difficult to make once you get the hang of it.

We start (top left) by submerging the rice paper round in warm water for a couple of seconds, and laying it on a clean counter top or marble slab. A regular cutting board may tear the soft paper so be careful! We lay the shrimp on top, pretty side down, with few mint or basil leaves in between. Arrange all the remaining fillings one by one, horizontally. First roll in the sides and then the bottom, and then roll it up from bottom to top (seen as right to left in the pictures below), packing the roll in and pushing the air out. Be gentle so as to not let any of the fillings poke or tear the rice paper.

The process.

All this is great, but for me, the real money is in the dipping sauce that comes together in a matter of seconds with chunky peanut butter, hoisin sauce and vinegar!

Peanut butter, hoisin sauce, chili paste, garlic, rice vinegar and a bit of milk (just to get the lighter color) come together for this easy dipping sauce.

The sauce is even perfect as a salad dressing with soba or rice noodles and crunchy veggies (gotta try that soon with leftovers)!

Once the rolls and the dipping sauce is ready, it is time to serve!

Shrimp spring rolls..
with tofu, carrots, sprouts, red bell peppers, basil and mint
The perfect bite

And here’s the big ta-da – an easy and healthy Vietnamese meal to take you to Vietnam, at least temporarily!

Chicken Pho and Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Spicy Peanut Sauce
Chicken Pho and Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Spicy Peanut Sauce

• Recipes •

Instant Pot Chicken Pho

Adapted from Platings and Pairings and I am a food blog 

Makes 4 servings

For the Pho
1 large yellow onion, cut into 8-10 big chunks
1 piece of ginger (about 2-3″ long and 1″ thick) cut into 1/4″ slices and slightly smashed with a knife
3-4 small cardamom pods lightly smashed with a knife
1-2 large cardamom pods lightly smashed with a knife (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon raw coriander seeds, whole
3-4 star anise pods
5-7 cloves
1 medium apple peeled, cored and cut into 1″ chunks
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and stems
4 chicken thighs bone-in, skin-on
2 tablespoons fish sauce (I used Red Boat and its flavor was indeed very well balanced)
1 tablespoon or 3-4 crystals of white rock sugar (not candy sugar)
6 cups fresh tap water
1 tsp kosher salt (add more to taste as needed)
12 oz rice noodles

Toppings (adjust to liking, feel free to add others too)
1-2 limes, cut into wedges
2-3 jalapeños, thinly sliced
1 small red onion thinly sliced
Springs of cilantro, basil and/or mint
1-1 1/2 cups of bean sprouts
2-3 tablespoons or more Sriracha sauce (to taste)

To make the Pho
Make noodles according to packaging instructions: some require to be soaked in hot water for 30-45 minutes, others require to be cooked in hot water for 3-5 minutes. If they require a long time, start cooking the noodles now; if not make it at the time of assembling the Pho.

Turn on your oven in Broil mode (on Low, if your oven have High/Low options). Arrange the onion chunks, ginger, two types of cardamom, cinnamon stick, coriander, star anise and cloves on a small baking sheet and broil in the oven for 5-6 minutes, watching every minute or 2 to ensure the spices don’t burn. Alternatively this can be done in a small pan on the stove, or in the Instant Pot (in Sautè mode for about 5 minutes with a teaspoon of oil).

Add toasted aromatics mixture and water to the Instant pot along with the chopped apple, cilantro, chicken, fish sauce, and sugar. Secure the lid. Select Manual/Pressure Cook and cook at High pressure for 15 minutes. When done, turn off the Instant Pot by selecting Cancel and let the pressure decrease naturally for 10 minutes. After that, release remaining pressure manually by pressing the valve (follow instructions for your Instant Pot model).

Carefully remove chicken from the pot (be sure not to let any spices cling to the chicken) and set aside. Strain the broth and season with salt, to taste. Skim some of the fat from the broth if you prefer. Add the broth back to the Instant Pot to keep warm.

Make noodles according to packaging instructions (if not already made).

Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, separate the meat from the bones (remove the skin if you prefer) and shred the meat with a fork or your hands.

To assemble the Pho
Divide the meat and cooked noodles among 4 large (deep) soup bowls. Divide the broth among the 4 bowls and serve piping hot with desired toppings.

Cook noodles only for the servings needed at the time i.e. if you plan to save 2 servings for later, make everything as is but cook only 6 oz noodles. The broth will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days and in the freezer for 2-3 months. The shredded meat will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days as well.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Adapted from Recipe Tin Eats

8-10 sheets of round rice paper
1/4 lb or about 25 small shrimps (deveined, cooked, then peeled and butterflied)
2 oz dried vermicelli noodles
16 mint leaves (about 1/4 cup)
8-10 cilantro sprigs
25-30 thinly sliced tofu strips (length should be about the radius of the paper)
25-30 thinly sliced carrot strips (from a medium carrot, peeled, core removed) (length should be about the radius of the paper)
25-30 thinly sliced red bell pepper strips (from 1 long red bell pepper) (length should be about the radius of the paper)
1 cup bean sprouts

Follow packaging instructions for vermicelli noodles (the ones I used needed to be cooked in boiling hot water for 5 minutes, then rinsed off in cold water), drain well and set aside. Once slightly cooled, cut into 8-10 chunks of noodles so it’s easy for you during assembly time.

Cut the butterflied shrimps in half and prepare remaining fillings (note that the quantities of the fillings depend on the combination, and how heavily you fill the rolls; make some extra fillings so you don’t run out at assembly time).

Fill a large, shallow bowl with clean, warm water.

Take a rice paper and gently submerge it in the water for 2-4 seconds. Even if it doesn’t feel soft right away, don’t let it be in the water for more than 4 seconds!

Place rice paper on a dry, clean cutting board (marble slab works best here) with the smooth side down (the other side will have some kind of design and you want that side facing the top). Leave a 1/2 inch border along the circle empty (i.e. no filling should extend there).

Place 3-4 shrimps on the top 1/4th of the paper, with small basil or mint leaves in between them.

After that, place remaining ingredients in any sequence, but make sure you place them horizontally. Don’t stack too many ingredients on top of each other as it may create difficulties in rolling.

When placing any leaves, set the greener, prettier side down (as that will be visible once rolled).

Fold the left and right edges of the rice paper in, placing neatly over the filling. Don’t fuss with it too much, if there are minor tears, they’ll be hidden in subsequent folds/layers!

Then starting from the bottom, roll up to cover the bottom-most filling. Keep rolling gently but firmly, packing the roll tightly and pushing the air out.

Serve immediately with the Spicy peanut dipping sauce (recipe following).

Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce

Makes about 1/2 cup, enough for 8-10 rolls

2 tablespoons chunky peanut butter
2 tablespoons Hoisin Sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar (any white vinegar or lime juice will do)
1/4 cup milk or water
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 tsp chilli paste, to taste (optional)

Combine the peanut butter, hoisin sauce, white vinegar, minced garlic and chili paste in a small bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds and whisk together well. Add milk (I used unsweetened Almond milk) or water to adjust to preferred consistency. Adjust salt and spice level to taste.

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