Vietnamese Vegetarian Pho

Vegetarian Pho with toppingsIts a bit ironic that I’m writing this amidst a controversy of a brand that introduced me to the idea of a noodle soup in my childhood (Maggi in soup?). A bowl of steaming hot “2 minute Maggi noodles” was what I thought “Chinese” (for lack of a better or more knowledgeable term) noodle soup was. I later learned that it went by various names – ramen, instant noodles, cup noodles. It’s only after I travelled out of India did I realize how limited my view of the world and it’s fascinating cuisines were and how noodle soup went way beyond a cup:)

I’m fascinated by the similarities and subtle differences in the dishes and cuisine of the different regions of SE Asia. In the last 3 years that I have savored this region and its food, the cultural interdependence is quite evident yet there are some clear differences in the cuisine marked by the seasonality and types of produce available in plenty in each region.

The noodle soup is a staple of SE Asia and it amazes me that this one pot dish, while a common fare across many Asian countries has such distinct differences in taste in the broth in each region. The Burmese Khow Suey, Vitenamese Pho, the Japanese Ramen, Malaysian/Singaporean Laksa, Curry Noodle Soup – the range is extensive and I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

I have attempted to make vegetarian versions of the different types of noodle soups at home, and the subtleties and flavor differences never cease to amaze me. They all may have the same basic ingredients, stock, noodles, meat or veggies but the broth is what makes each one of them unique. Miso in Japanese cuisine, coconut milk in Burmese and possibly Thai cuisine, almost a curry like taste with pandan leaves in laksa – it may be just that one ingredient that completely alters the taste and gives it that authentic local flavor. This only gives ample credence to the fact that at one time the world was one big happy place, one big landmass and the subtle shifts in geography, borders and surges in population have created the uniqueness and therefore the cuisines and cultures. Fascinating.

The Vietnamese Pho (pronounced as fur, with the “r” silent) is one dish I have been wanting to try for ever and strangely haven’t been able to find one that serves a vegetarian version in Singapore. I’m sure there are some restaurants tucked away that do offer vegetarian versions of Pho in Singapore but so far I’ve tried at least 5 places and haven’t had any luck. I suppose I was meant to try it in the heart of where this dish originated , in Ho Chi Minh City. Our trip to Saigon last summer led us to savor the vegetarian delicacies this city had to offer. Our guide took us to a famous restaurant where Bill Clinton and his family had pho when they visited in 2000. Pho 2000 in the heart of the city is a popular restaurant which though quite touristy (the Clinton effect is quite strong as can be seen by the many pictures of the family along the walls ).

Pho 2000

Inside Pho 2000

Inside Pho 2000

This is also the one place that has vegetarian pho in its menu. Possibly to humor Clinton again who was vegan at the time he visited. But this was by far the best noodle stock flavour I had ever had. Cinnamon, clove, onions and ginger give an almost an Indian masala taste to the broth, yet it’s light and not too overpowering and crunchy veggies, flat rice noodles make it a very wholesome meal.

Veg Pho at Pho 2000

Vegetarian Pho at Pho 2000. Fried bean curd, mushrooms in the broth. Topping of kalamansi (small lime), red chilies, Thai basil and spring onions. Served with a side of coconut water.

I love collecting local cookbooks when I travel (if I can spot veggie versions) and also local spices that I stash until I get the mood to try the recipe. I had picked up the Vietnamese Cassia Cinnamon from the local market (Ban Thanh market) and also a Pho “spice powder” made with powdered cinnamon, cloves, star anise and coriander. There is something about trying a recipe from scratch though, so when I saw this recipe from The Kitchn I had to make it.

Vietnamese Pho spice mix and Cassia Cinnamon

Vietnamese Pho spice mix and Cassia Cinnamon

This recipe is a sort of hybrid between The Kitchn recipe and what’s on the packet of the spice mix I had. Note – you don’t need the spice mix packet for the recipe as this gives you a method to make it yourself:)

Serves 3

Make the broth first.

Recipe for Broth

  • 1 large onion, peeled and halved
  • 2-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and halved lengthwise
  • 3-inch cinnamon stick, preferably Vietnamese cassia-cinnamon
  • 2 star anise
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 4 1/2 cups unsalted vegetable stock
  • 2-3 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 4 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 2 slices green Thai chilies or Serrano peppers

Method for broth

  1. Dry roast the cinnamon, coriander, cloves and star anise on a flat pan till you begin getting an aroma.
Dry roasting the spices for Pho

Dry roasting the spices for Pho

 

  1. Powder the spices in a coffee grinder to a smooth powder.
  2. Tie this powder in a cotton cloth or small cotton drawstring bag and keep it aside.
  3. Take the halved onion and ginger pieces and roast it on an open flame. Alternatively you may use a broiler or grill plate to grill them till they begin to look a bit charred. Set this aside.
  4. Now heat 4 cups of vegetable stock. I use Kallo organic veg stock cubes but you can either make this from scratch with vegetable slivers or use any stock cube of choice. Add the soy sauce.
  5. Add the charred onion, ginger pieces to the stock. Add the bagged spice powder to this and let the mixture come to a slow boil. Add carrots and sliced green chilies. Simmer covered for about 30 minutes.

Noodles

1/2 pound dried flat rice noodles (known as bánh phở); you may use any flat rice noodles here if availability is an issue

Cook the noodles according to package instructions and set aside.

Toppings (optional)

  • Protein such as fried or baked tofu, bean curd skin, or seitan – I used tofu
  • Mushrooms (I used enoki but you may use any kind)
  • Vegetables such as bok choy, napa cabbage, or broccoli – I used bok choy and broccoli

Garnishes

  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 chile pepper (Thai bird, serrano, or jalapeño), sliced, if you need additional spice
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges
  • 1/2 cup bean sprouts
  • Large handful of herbs: cilantro, Thai basil,
  • Hoisin sauce, sriracha (optional)

 Assembling the Pho

  1. Slice and cook or steam the tofu. Lightly steam or blanch any veggies. Make sure you don’t over season the veggies and the toppings so as not to muddle the flavor of the broth.
  2. Add the cooked noodles in a bowl. Arrange the toppings over the noodles.
  3. Ladle about 1 – 1 1/2 cups of broth in the bowl.
  4. Add the garnishes or serve them on the side.
  5. Enjoy piping hot.
Pho with toppings

Pho with toppings

And here’s some more food gazing of all the other veggie Vietnamese delicacies we savored while in HCM City. Feast on.

Vietnamese coffee at Trung Nguyen

Vietnamese coffee at Trung Nguyen

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Steamed Cassava with Peanut and jaggery

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(Clockwise) Papaya, Rambutan, Jackfruit, Longan fruit and pineapple. Served with sour and sweet salt.

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Steamed flour pancakes with mushrooms and bean sprouts

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Taro and vegetable mushroom spring rolls

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Puffed sticky rice dumpling

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Vietnamese vegetable curry at Hum vegetarian restaurant

 

Lunchbox Series – Mung “Kachumber” Salad

Tried this protein packed recipe for our lunchbox today. I call this a “kachumber” as it has the signature onion-tomato-cucumber mixture though I did lightly stir fry them (unlike a raw kachumber salad) to bring all the ingredients together. You may just make this as a raw salad as well, leave the oil and seasoning out.

I packed this as an accompaniment to a mixed salad that had all the colors of the rainbow along with a creamy mustard dressing. (Recipe below)

Mung Sprouts salad

Mung Kachumber:

Ingredients :

  • 100 grms or 1 bowl Moong sprouts
  • 1/2 onion finely chopped
  • 3-4 cherry tomatoes choppes
  • 1 carrot, 1/4 cabbage, 1 capsicum finely chopped or shredded
  • 1 cucumber finely chopped
  • 2 green chillies crushed
  • Bunch cilantro finely chopped
  • 1tsp mustard seeds
  • 1/4 tsp asafetida or hing
  • Salt to taste or jiralu powder
  • 1/2 tsp kitchen king masala or garam masala

Method:

  1. Take a pan or a kadhai, Add 1 tsp olive oil.
  2. When it’s hot add mustard seeds and let it sizzle and pop
  3. Now add the asafetida.
  4. Add the chopped onion and lightly sauté till transparent. Add tomatoes.
  5. Add the cabbage and bell pepper and let half cook i.e it should still be crunchy. Add cucumber and carrot. Sauté for about a minute more.
  6. Add the crushed green chilies and salt to taste.
  7. Switch off the heat and stir everything till well mixed.
  8. Garnish with chopped cilantro. This can also be eaten with hot rotis or by itself as a mid afternoon or morning snack.

And here’s the salad that went with it in the lunchbox.

Recipe for creamy mustard dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon (about 1 large clove or 2 small cloves) minced fresh garlic
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Whisk all the above in a small bowl with a fork or a small whisk. You can store this for about 3-5 days in the fridge.