Would a noodle soup by any other name be less soul-soothing? Pho may be a relative newcomer to the American melting pot, but a craving for those distinctive flavors paired with slippery rice noodles has quickly taken hold of the nation’s appetite. Redolent of exotic spices with a certain savory richness ever-present in the background, it’s traditionally meat that brings the umami element to the party, but vegan alternatives abound. The largest stumbling block for recreating this unfamiliar flavor profile in my own kitchen was one simple spice: Anise. A lovely, licorice-like, naturally sweet warmth, by no means is it a despised ingredient in my eyes, but I can’t help but approach it with great hesitation. A powerful component of any dish, it can quickly overwhelm, even when added with the lightest hand. No matter how I tried to trust the plentiful online recipes, I couldn’t bring myself to attempt them faithfully.
For the pho-fearing, there is at last an easy, approachable answer. Pacific Natural Foods, purveyor of a whole world of soups and stocks, has just unveiled their new Vegetarian Pho Soup Base, a blank canvas for your very own Vietnamese noodle soup masterpiece. Built upon a foundation of mushroom broth, it has savory flavor to spare, with comforting, familiar undertones capable of supporting any combination of toppings and hearty additions.
What really makes most servings of pho, however, is the myriad condiments that you choose to complete your bowl. Aside from noodles and tofu, chilies, hot sauce, lime juice, beansprouts, mint, basil, cilantro, green onions, and/or shallots are all fair game, depending only on a matter of taste. Taking a more sparing route to better taste the broth in question, there was nothing to obstruct the unique seasoning of this surprising soup. Immediately struck by the clear anise essence, at first, it was just as I had feared. Within a few worrisome moments however, it transformed into something entirely new to my palate, a highly nuanced and complex amalgamation of both sweet and hot spices. Not for the timid, it was somewhat sharp upon my initial slurp, but still nothing to dive into a bucket of non-dairy milk over. Impressively fearless for a commercially available packaged offering, regardless of authenticity, I was thrilled to get such a bright, bold kick right from the first spoonful.
Forget about that plain Jane “chicken” noodle next time you’re craving comfort; Pho delivers all that heart-warming familiarity, plus an exciting bouquet of delicate but highly flavorful Vietnamese seasoning all in the same bowl.