The success of this dish depends on the full-flavored stock, for
which there is no quick substitute. Even though it takes a long time to
cook, it is well worth the effort. The stock can be made in advance and
frozen, making it easy to put the dish together when required.
Pho epitomizes what is considered a honest cuisine. Simple and pure in
flavor, it appeals to all the senses. For the eyes pho offers an
intriguing composition of carefully arranged layers of noodles, vegetables
and meat surrounded by a shimmering broth that was clearly boiling in its
stockpot only moments ago. Leaning over the bowl you inhale deeply to
capture the heady aroma of the rich broth spiced with anise, cloves and
roasted ginger and the delicate fragrance of fresh basil, cilantro (and
sometimes even mint).
Working nimbly with chopsticks and spoon, you fill
your mouth with the rich feel of well prepared stock, the chew of the
slippery noodle and textured meat, and the crunch of bean sprouts or other
vegetables cooked only by the broth that envelops them. The flavors you
smelled evolve in your mouth, the beefy goodness (and sweet heat too if
you added a squirt of chili sauce) intensifying and subsiding, delicately
coating your tongue and warming the back of your throat. As you eat you
are entertained by the alternating sounds of slurping noodles and sipping
soup. A bowl of pho is simultaneously a transcendent, humble and happy
experience, and clearly plain old good eats.
At it's core, pho can truly be considered a cultural and political
statement. And, like any subject that instills such levels of passion,
there is anything but unanimity about how pho came to be or, indeed, what
goes into it. Pho appears to be the soup equivalent of barbecue. Every pho
cook has his or her own rules of what can and cannot go into the bowl, and
even how it should go into the bowl. Are bean sprouts authentic? If so,
are they served in the soup, or on the side with fresh basil for the diner
to add as desired? Is basil OK? How about mint? Cilantro? Care to finish
it off with a squeeze of lime, or lemon?
To the pho fanatics the preceding
questions contain nothing but fighting words.