Pho-Nomenal

Robust, deeply savory broth spiked with equally bold and nuanced spices are the defining characteristics of any successful bowl of pho. Rice noodles are an essential component, soaking in those carefully honed, painstakingly crafted layers of flavor, but never the stars of the show. It all comes down to the soup itself, sometimes simmered for hours, if not days, built upon generations of family secrets.

Celebrated across Vietnam and now the world at large, that same passion for the process sometimes gets lost in translation, especially when searching for a vegan option. Pho Chay, born of Buddhist traditions that take all forms of meat off the dinner table, is all too often a sad, watered-down tease. Plain vegetable broth is not an adequate substitution for this edible art, but if you don’t know any better, how can one possibly get the delicate seasoning right?

With as many recipes as there are cooks that make it, happily, there are no hard and fast rules for building a better broth. That’s why even a blatantly “inauthentic” rendition can still soothe those soulful soup cravings.

Inspired by the uniquely aromatic blend of cinnamon, clove, ginger and cardamom found in Stash Chai Spice Black Tea, Pho Chai is both a crafty play on words and a delicious departure from the norm. The blend of strong Assam, muscatel Darjeeling, and well-balanced Nilgiri found in every sachet add surprising umami flavor along with unexpected sweet Indian spices. Energetic notes of cardamom and ginger brighten this bowl, harmonizing beautifully with the fresh spray of herbs piled on top. Perhaps the concept is dubious on paper, but unquestionably compelling on the tongue.

You’ll want to stock up on this warm, spicy tea for more than just soup. Head over to StashTea.com and use the promo code BITTERSWEET-SC to get discount off your purchase, and don’t forget to follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for both sweet and savory tea inspiration.

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Noodling Beyond Pho

Plumes of stream erupt in the dining room as waiters hurriedly scuttle oversized bowls from the kitchen to waiting eaters. Each one large enough for a small child to bathe in, filled to the brim with boiling hot broth and vermicelli noodles, each portion is like a self-contained bottomless buffet. No appetite can rise to the challenge, despite the compulsively slurpable soup, explosive with fresh chilies, redolent with bright lemongrass and fresh cilantro. You’d think this wildly popular order was something highly recognizable like pho, but you’d be wrong. Bún riêu, Vietnamese crab noodle soup, is the worst kept secret that the Western world is just catching onto.

Complicated to prepare, most recipes lay claim to over two dozen components for the soup base, let alone the additional garnishes that finish each bubbling cauldron. Given that difficulty and the expense of such luxurious ingredients, Bún riêu would typically be reserved for special occasions, but that distinction has faded with increased prosperity and accessibility. Still, if you’re hoping for a meatless facsimile when dining out, you’d be more likely to get struck by lighting on the way out to the restaurant. Few chefs see vegetarian alternatives for the distinctive texture and flavor of fresh crab… But they’ve clearly never experienced fresh yuba.

Since dreaming up this sweet-and-sour brew, I’ve come to realize how much more potential there is to play with substituting jackfruit, simmered until meltingly tender, should Hikiage Yuba remain out of reach. Standard tofu puffs, found in most Asian markets, can stand in for the more highly seasoned nuggets as well. Worst comes to worst, should all grocery stores fall short, you could simply saute some standard firm tofu until crisp on all sides and toss it into the broth. The only mistake here would be thinking that pho is the only spicy noodle soup to savor, without getting a taste of this hot rival.

Yield: Makes 4 - 6 Servings

Bún Riêu Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Crab Soup)

Bún Riêu Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Crab Soup)
Vietnamese crab noodle soup has flavors that rival the more commonly known pho, but rarely offer meatless alternatives. This one uses tender tofu in different forms to create a compulsively slurpable soup, explosive with fresh chilies, redolent with bright lemongrass and fresh cilantro.
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 1 hour

Ingredients

Soup Base:

  • 2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
  • 2 Medium Shallots, Diced
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 3.5 Ounces Fresh Oyster Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
  • 1 (14-Ounce)Can Diced Tomatoes
  • 1/4 Cup Pineapple Juice
  • 2 Tablespoons Vegan Fish Sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Light Soy Sauce
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 4 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Stock

Toppings:

Instructions

  1. Set a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove and begin by melting the coconut oil. Once shimmering, add the shallots, garlic, and mushrooms, sauteing until aromatic and tender.
  2. When the vegetables begin to just barely take on color, introduce the tomatoes and pineapple juice, scraping the bottom of the pan to make sure nothing sticks.
  3. Simmer for about 10 minutes before adding in the vegan fish sauce, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, and vegetable stock.
  4. Cover and simmer for another 20 – 30 minutes for the flavors to mingle and meld. The soup base can be made up to 4 days in advance, when properly cooled and kept in an airtight container in the fridge.
  5. To serve, simply divide the noodles, yuba, and tofu nuggets equally between 4 – 6 bowls, depending on how hungry you and your guests are. Top with a generous portion of broth, and pass around the crispy onions, mint and/or basil, scallions, and bean sprouts at the table, allowing each person to garnish their bowlful as desired. Slurp it up immediately, while steaming hot!

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 276 Total Fat: 10g Saturated Fat: 5g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 3mg Sodium: 181mg Carbohydrates: 46g Fiber: 16g Sugar: 6g Protein: 11g

Banh Mi and Banh You, Too

Please don’t call the authorities, but I think I may have just robbed a sandwich shop.

It was an accident, I swear. My intentions were good through the entire transaction, my demeanor nonthreatening, the cashier entirely unconcerned by my presence. It was all so mundane, so unremarkable that I might have forgotten the whole scene by tomorrow if not for that one sticky detail. All I wanted was a sandwich, an honest meal after a long day. Something easy and fast, unchallenging flavors to soothe the ache of comfort food cravings. Indeed, I got precisely that; a glorious banh mi, decked out in crisp pickled vegetables and beautifully burnished lemongrass tofu.

In five minutes flat, from the moment I burst through the door at Cam Huong, my order was ready, stuffed to bursting with bean curd still warm from the fryer. I raced home, cradling my treasure close to my chest, like a precious baby swaddled in deli paper. Only after I tore through the wrapping paper and took my first monstrous bite did I realize my potentially larcenous predicament. Checking my wallet, only three one-dollar bills were missing. That wouldn’t even be enough to cover the tip for most bay area meals. How could that possibly suffice for a full 8 inches of sub satisfaction? Even a prepackaged gas station peanut butter and jelly sandwich would command a 5-spot, at least.

I suppose this makes me a fugitive on the run now. I’m neither armed nor dangerous, but I do command a ferocious appetite, so if you ever need a partner in banh mi crime… I’d gladly become a repeat offender.

It’s What’s Pho Dinner

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.