(Vietnamese Rare Beef & Noodle Soup)

I call this "Vietnamese gumbo". It's not really accurate ... but it's true.

If there is a national dish of Vietnam, it's pho, or phở with the proper Vietnamese spelling (usually pronounced as "foe" by most Americans, but in Vietnamese it comes out sounding something like "fuh?", with a rising tone). It's beloved by just about everyone both in Vietnam and in the many Vietmanese communities in America, and seems to me to be as integral to Vietnamese cuisine and culture as gumbo is to Louisianian cuisine and culture.

My first bowl of phở was in a Vietmanese restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown -- unfortunately, I can't for the life of me remember the name. I chose it more or less at random, and walked inside. There was nobody but Vietnamese people inside, so I was pretty sure I had chosen the right place. I had no idea what to order, although I had heard of phở before. I ordered a bowl, and luckily for me a man at the next table was just being served his. I was able to watch the whole phở-eating process -- fishing out the beef before it's completely cooked; adding the fresh herbs and chiles a little bit at a time, as you go along; adding little dabs of sriracha or hoisin sauces here and there. It seemed a time-honored ritual, and I'm glad I had an example to follow, or I'm not sure I would have known what the hell to do when the washbasin-sized bowl of phở arrived, for the princely sum of $3.95.

This is a wonderful dish -- incredibly aromatic, extremely filling (much more so than it looks), fun to make, and if you buy it in a restaurant, it's cheap. You can usually get a bowl of phở big enough to wash your hair in (if you were so inclined) for four or five bucks at the most, and I can never finish it. It's usually good for two meals for me.

And while I usually eat out for phở, which is easy to do in any city with a Vietnamese population, I have to recommend making it at home at least once. It's not nearly as hard as it might look from this huge recipe -- most of the work goes into the making of the amazing broth. The noodles cook in one minute, the beef is cooked right there in the soup, and all you really have to do is chop herb garnishes and chiles. The aroma that will fill your house as the broth cooks is worth every iota of effort.

Vietnamese cuisine is a yet another great gift to this country from immigrant peoples, and it's become one of my very favorite Asian cuisines, if not my very favorite (hmm, a tie with Thai?).

Phở has another link with gumbo now, in that it has definitely become part of the New Orleans food scene. There is a large Vietnamese community in the Crescent City, concentrated in the Village de l'Est part of New Orleans East. This community was hit terribly hard by the floods following Hurricane Katrina, and has banded together, worked tirelessly and struggled to rebuild their community in an amazing way. If you're in New Orleans drive out to da East and get yourself a bowl of phở. You won't regret it.

Put the oxtails into a large stockpot and add enough cold water to cover the bones by 4 inches (about 2 gallons). Bring to a full boil and then immediately lower the heat to a simmer. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface.

Meanwhile put the ginger and onion halves on a greased baking sheet and place the sheet under the broiler, about 3 inches below the flame. Char the ginger and onion until they're lightly blackened, about 10 to 15 minutes. Turn them over halfway through cooking. When they're cool enough to handle, rinse the onion and ginger under cold running water, using a knife to scrape away some of the charred surface. Cut the ginger into 3 pieces and add it and the onion halves to the simmering broth, along with 1 tablespoon salt and the fish sauce (which doesn't smell as bad when it's added to other ingredients and cooked).

Put the star anise, cloves, and pieces of cinnamon stick in a small skillet and toast them over medium heat. Shake the skillet and turn the spices a couple of times until they're slightly darkened (3 to 4 minutes) and until you smell the aroma of their essential oils being released (which smells really good). Make a sachet d'épices -- put the toasted spices and fennel seeds in a small square of cheesecloth (or a large tea ball) and tie the bundle with a long piece of kitchen twine. Add the sachet and the bay leaves to the broth. Tie the end of the twine the pot handle -- that makes it easy to retrieve it after cooking.

Let the broth simmer uncovered for 4 hours, occasionally skimming any additional scum that may form. (This will make the house smell incredible -- the aroma will waft into every room. This makes phở a great dish to make when you're spending a leisurely day at home, or if you need to do housecleaning).

After 4 hours remove the sachet, onion, bay leaves and ginger from the pot and discard. Remove the oxtails from the pot and set aside. Let the broth continue to simmer gently.

When the meat has cooled, pull it off the bones and chop it into small bits. Reserve the meat and return the bones to the broth. (This step will extract all the gelatin from the bones, making a very full-bodied stock, as well as extra flavor.) Continue simmering uncovered for about 1 more hour. Add more salt or fish sauce to taste as needed. By this time the broth should be incredibly flavorful and aromatic.

As the broth nears completion, soak the rice noodles in cold water for at least 20 minutes. Nicely arrange the sliced scallions, cilantro, parsley, Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and sliced chiles on plates -- these garnishes will be served along with the phở.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the drained rice noodles. Give the noodles a quick stir and cook until tender but firm, about 1 minute only (don't let the noodles overcook, or you'll be left with a pile of stringy gummy paste). Drain the noodles immediately. Warm 6 large bowls by rinsing them with hot water and divide the noodles among the bowls.

Just before serving, return the broth to a full boil. Arrange the slices of raw beef and pieces of cooked oxtail meat over the noodles in each bowl. Carefully ladle the boiling broth over all; the raw beef should be submerged in the broth, and the heat from the broth will quickly begin to cook it. (I like pulling it out when medium rare, and setting some of it aside.)

Serve immediately, along with a platter of garnish for each serving. The technique is for each person to season his or her individual bowl of phở, adding fresh herbs as you go along (keeps the flavor bright and fresh, particularly for the cilantro), more or less chiles, sauces, etc. You keep building as you go, and each bowl is tailored to your own individual taste. (It's fun to eat this way, too!)

Yield: 16 cups of broth; serves 6 as a main course


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Chuck Taggart   (e-mail chuck)