She’s small and short with long, dark, black hair, a slightly round face and beautiful skin the color of chocolate buttercream. She’s standing beside a large pot of gently simmering beef bones. This, she explains has been simmering for hours before class.
I am here to learn how to make several dishes including a family favorite, beef pho. Pho is a delicious soup made with spiced beef broth, rice noodles, thinly sliced beef, and lots of herbs and bean sprouts. My family loves it, but we don’t enjoy the fact that most restaurants add MSG and additives to their soups. A friend introduces our instructor. It turns out that our chef is a first-generation American. After describing her scary adventure getting to America on a rickety boat, she declares, “We are lucky to have her with us today.”
As this small Korean shows us the steaming pot, she explains that her pho doesn’t need MSG because she makes a rich bone broth that tastes delicious without it. That’s why I am here. I want to make authentic pho at home, without all of the MSG, and I am excited to learn. I hold a pen and pad of paper in hand. You see, I am being taught, along with 20 other eager people, not a recipe, but a method. She explains by ratios, handfuls, and pinches. Nothing is written down in her kitchen; her recipe box is in her head.
“I want you to know how to make it taste good with what you have at home,” she says, stopping to search for words to explain what she means. “I have certain bones here and it will come out a little different. You need to learn the method so that you can make it at home.”
I am fascinated as she toasts spices like cloves and star anise, and dumps huge amounts of coriander and fennel into her bubbling brew. The fattest ginger I’ve ever seen is sliced and added too. She explains that we can add lots of this and that, but not too much of certain spices. She tells us to add the spices later so that the broth doesn’t become bitter. Along with the spices she adds two large yellow whole onions, peeled and the root ends trimmed. The delightful smell of spices and meaty broth starts to ensnare me and make my mouth water and my stomach rumble. But I know we have to let this broth simmer for a while yet. While it cooks, she moves us on to preparing other dishes, but soon enough she fishes out some of the bones with tender meat hanging off. The meat is just at the right point, tender, but not tough. She passes it around for us to tug a little bite off. When the meat hits my mouth I taste such a wide range of flavors that I am tempted to add my sighs of enjoyment to the crowd around me. It’s amazing. Instead, I manage to sneak another bite when no one is watching.
I am still looking with longing at the pot of pho soup as we prepare our salad. As I sit down to one of the most amazing salads I’ve ever eaten (and this is from someone who wrote a salad cookbook), my husband and I talk on the phone and I realize that my infant needs me back home.
But alas, the pho soup! I can’t leave without it. I explain my predicament to my instructor and she gathers us around to show us how to strain the broth with a fine sieve and add water to get the right flavor. She bundles me up with packages of rice noodles, Thai basil, thinly sliced raw beef, and bean sprouts. I race home with the broth sloshing beside me, tempting me and urging me home.
At home, my husband and 5-year-old daughter gather around me, as I reheat the broth and pour it over the raw beef (which instantly cooks) and cooked noodles and add basil and bean sprouts. We split it between the three of us. The verdict? Amazing. My husband and I agree that this is one of the best pho soups we have ever had and it’s MSG-free too.
As I look at all of my hastily written notes from the class, I know that I must make this soup soon. Not only because I am already longing for another bowl, but also because I need to remember what her hands full of spices looked like, and what the browned black coriander smelt like, and how salty to make the broth to get it right.
I’ve already ordered the appropriate bones for the broth, and am going to make a trip to the Asian store soon. I hope that my pho soup will make my instructor proud when I make it — my husband and daughter full, and my taste buds delighted.