Ma Mi’s Pho Ga

No one  tells you this when you don’t have kids: there is no sick day once you have a baby. Regardless of whether you work at an office or at home, there is no option to call out sick. You spend your allotment of sick and personal days taking the baby to see the doctor like 50 times during the first year. And if you’re a Stay at Home parent, often you are your own back-up plan.

On days when all I want to do is pull the covers over my head and call out sick—but can’t—I scoop myself off the sofa, head over to the stove, and stir up a  cauldron of pho ga, Vietnamese chicken noodle soup. The combination of spices and aromatics restores me right back to my elements.

Ask any Vietnamese person about pho and no two people will agree on what goes in the soup or how to make it. But one thing they will agree on is that no one–NO ONE, makes pho like his/her Ma Mi. Every family has their own variation of pho and that particular taste is wired in that person’s food memory.

Most pho restaurants in the U.S. serve pho bo (beef noodle soup) which is made from beef oxtail, and rarely offer pho ga which is more of a home-made food. What you’ll find in your bowl of pho ga varies greatly from region to region, table to table. In Hanoi, pho ga may be a humble bowl of broth, chicken or beef depending on the type of pho and a pinch of scallions. Head south to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) and you’ll find extravagantly festooned bowls of noodle piled high with garnishes. Every household will have their own way of eating pho. In some homes, you’ll find a bowl of spicy, garlicky sauce used for dipping the boiled chicken pieces. Pho can be eaten as lunch or dinner, but it is quite popular to eat pho with a poached egg for breakfast. I am of the there’s-no-such-thing-as-too-much garnish camp.

As I gather the spices and fill the stock pot I realize that this is going to be my son’s first bowl of pho ga. To him, this bowl of noodle soup will be “The Pho Ga” of his childhood, his Ma Mi’s recipe forever imprinted in his hypothalamus.

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For the Pho Stock:
1 whole Chicken
2-3 large Onions
1 bunch Scallions
1 bunch cilantro stems, tied with butcher’s twine
1 large Ginger

Bouquet Garni:
1 Tbsp Corriander Seed
1 Tbsp Fennel Seed
2 sticks Cinnamon
5 Cloves
3 Star Anise
Pepper, coarsely grounded

For the Pho Broth:
1 quart Pho Stock
5 Tbsp Nuoc Mam (Fish Sauce)
Freshly ground Black Pepper

Rice noodle (medium size flat noodles), if using dried noodles, soak in warm water before cooking per package instructions; fresh noodles can be found in the refrigerated section at Asian markets which do not require pre-soaking
Cooked chicken meat, cut into 1/2 inch strips
Scallions, thinly sliced
Red Onions, thinly sliced
Cilantro, thinly sliced
Thai Basil leaves
Saw leaf herb, rough chop (aka racau or ngo gai)
Mung Bean Sprouts
Siracha chili paste
Lime wedges

Saigon Dipping Sauce
(as if all of the above garnishes isn’t enough flavor, you can make this sauce for dipping meat)
2 Tbsp Nuoc Mam
1 clove Garlic, minced
1 Thai Bird Chili, diced
Lime Juice, to taste

1. Put the chicken into a large stock pot and fill with cold water, but do not fill all the way to the top, over medium-high heat until just under a boil. Be sure to skim the foam in order to keep your stock clear. Can also be done in a crock pot, set on high for 6-8 hours.

2. Meanwhile, if you have a gas stove, put each onion on a medium-high burner (if you don’t skip this step and peel and rough chop the onions and go to step #3). Let the skin burn away and the flames char the onions until the onion turns almost completely translucent and the juices start to ooze from the skin. Use thongs to remove the onions, rinse under cold water.

3. Once the stock reaches boiling, lower the heat to medium-low and add the charred onions, ginger, bouquet garni, and scallions. Let the stock simmer for about 3-4 hours.

4. Remove the chicken and let cool completely before cutting into 1 inch pieces.

5. Strain the stock through a fine mesh sieve into 1 quart containers. Let cool completely before refrigerating or freezing.
6. To assemble the Pho broth: Divide cooked rice noodles among three bowls. Add chicken pieces and herbs to each bowl.

7. Heat 1 quart of stock over medium heat. Add fish sauce to taste. Let the broth cook to just when it boils, then remove from heat and pour over noodles.

8. Finish with a squeeze of lime, some chili paste, herbs, etc.

7. Oh, but wait! You can also add a poached egg if you’re so inclined. Simply crack an egg into the broth while it’s boiling and once the egg whites are opaque and congealed, ladle the egg in on top of the noodle soup.



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