Faux Pho

In Recipies on September 27, 2011 at 8:21 am

One of America’s best decisions was its embracing of Southeast Asian immigrants.  Iowa, Texas, and Louisiana welcomed displaced persons from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.  Iowa’s Governor Ray was a vanguard in bringing agrarian Southeast Asians to America’s heartland.

The newcomers quickly adapted to farming in the heartland and shrimping along the Gulf Coast.  Contrary to the forecasts of xenophobes, they proved to be hard workers and embraced everything American with a zeal not seen since the Great Potato Famine in Ireland.

The Southeast Asians kept their cultural roots.  Many were Catholic and blended readily into the Catholic society that runs deep roots in Iowa, Texas, and Louisiana.

To our benefit, they brought their foods.

I was introduced to “pho” (rhymes with “duh”) years before the “boat people” arrived in America.  In high school I raced motorcycles (motocross and cross county “enduro”) and my frequent teammate was a young man named “Gavin”.

Gavin was a few years older and had gone to Vietnam to protect America from its then most feared enemy, agrarian Vietnamese.  This was well before American imperial forces were sent to the Near East to protect us from agrarian Muslims.

Gavin came home with a limp and a wife.  The limp was from a twisted knee he got when leaping from a “Huey” helicopter.  The wife, was a young laundry worker who fell for the short French-Canadian.

Her name was something like “Khar-ahn Nguyen”.  We called her “Karen” and her surname, Nguyen (pronounced “Gwin” or “Gewhin”) was shared with about two thirds of her former countrymen.

“In Vietnam, everyone named Nguyen”, she explained.

Karen introduced me to “pho” and “goi cahn” (Vietnamese spring rolls).  To my western nose, her cooking smelled terrible.  The aroma was sort of a blend of strange spices and fish gone bad.

I lost track of Gavin and Karen.  I recently learned Gavin had passed away from lung cancer and there was no trail for Karen.  I pray she is well.

I also lost track of pho and goi cahn.

That is, until I began my internship and subsequent residency in Texas.

My chief resident, Fran, asked me if I ever had pho.  I nodded and Fran broke into a wide grin.  He ushered his intern charges into a van and off we went to Asia Foods.

The place was a poster for the immigrant squalor familiar to the Irish, Jews, Poles, Germans, and others who came years before the Vietnamese.  Filthy rags fluttered in the hot Texas sun and a dank bucket of mop water stood by the front door.  A woman of undeterminable age, with black teeth from decades of chewing betel nuts greeted us with a flurry of excitement and an accent that reminded my of my lost friend Karen.

Her ao dai fluttered in the breeze while a horde of small children giggled in the kitchen door.   She warmly greeted “bac si (doctor) Fran”.

In a very short time, huge bowls of pho took their places at our table.  A platter of bean sprouts, lime slices, jalapeno slices, basil leaves, cilantro leaves, green onion, and mint accompanied the soup.  Little bowls of pungent peanut sauce stood next to the goi cahn and tall glasses filled with ice waited for café sua da.

Café sua da is espresso coffee made with a special infuser, served over several tablespoons of Eagle Brandmilk.  The stuff is beyond refreshing and goes well with stout cigarettes enjoyed by

Cafe sua da

the Vietnamese (think “Camel studs”).

In those days, I did not keep much to kosher and my favorite blend of pho was pho hai san” (seafood pho) filled with shrimp, squid, and other treife.  Bunches of mushrooms and vegetables bumped into the forbidden foods like flotsam.  In the bottom of the enormous bowl was a wad of rice noodles or spaghetti.  Technically, if spaghetti is used, the pho becomes mi thap cahm.

It did not seem possible that a mere human could consume the entire bowl (bucket) of soup in a single sitting.  The omnipresent table of middle-aged Vietnamese men wearing white shirts smoked their Camel studs and politely avoided eye contact with the “mi” (Americans) slurping noisily at their pho.

Oh, the memories.

But, y’all do not read Phyne Dyning for my memories.

How about we make some pho?

Now, a word of disclaimer about the recipe.  You can make real pho hai san using shrimp, clams, and baby squid.  Or, if your Invisible Friend demands you avoid treife, you can make a very passible faux pho by using imitation crab and lobster (read the label for permitted ingredients…some use “lobster flavor” or “crab flavor”).  If you cannot find permitted imitation seafood, use canned chicken breast, cod, and salmon.

Problem solved!

Here is what you’ll need.  Be inventive!  Pho is Vietnamese peasant food.  There are beef, chicken, and fish varieties.

8oz imitation crab

8oz imitation lobster

6-8ox canned chicken breast

½ C finely minced onion

8 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 carrot thin sliced

1 can sliced water chestnuts

½ C baby (Asian) corn

3 TBS Vietnamese nuac mam* (fish sauce)

* or use 3 TBS anchovy paste in 1 C warm water

1 qt chicken broth

1 qt vegetable broth

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp lemongrass

2 tsp ground ginger

1 star anise pod

½ to 1 tsp ground cinnamon (to taste)

10 black peppercorns, cracked with mallet

1-2 handfuls fresh spinach, shredded

1 tsp galangal powder (optional)

½ C cilantro leaves

1 TBS “Saigon Sizzle” sauce (optional)

½ tsp cayenne pepper

2 C white button mushrooms, thinly sliced

 Dump all of the above into a large stockpot and heat thoroughly or until carrots are almost soft.  DO NOT overcook!  Pho freezes very well (absent of the noodles) and I make several batches for cold winter nights or when one of us has the “flu”…Vietnamese penicillin!

Ready, set, go!

When you want to serve your pho, prepare the following:

1 pkg spaghetti or 1 pkg rice noodles cooked to package instructions to al dente

Now, prepare the garnish (per person).  Be sure to use FRESH herbs!  Do this by the handful.

Fresh basil leaves

Fresh mint leaves

Fresh cilantro

Fresh bean spouts

Fresh green onion slivers

Sliced jalapeno pepper

Bunch of chives

Lime and lemon slices

Do not forget the sauces!

Tuong Ot Sriracha (Hoy Fong Foods)

Go to an Asian market and ask for “The Rooster”!

Vietnamese peanut sauce (most Asian markets)

  OR mix 1 tbs peanut butter with ½ C “Saigon Sizzle Stir Fry Sauce”

Serve the sauces in small bowls or “family style”.

Place a “glob” of spaghetti or rice noodles in the bottom of a bowl and ladle a bit of the broth with the meats over the noodles.  Drizzle the Sriracha and peanut sauce over the mix and then shred the herbs over the whole mess, squeeze the lime or lemon on it, and toss in some bean sprouts and jalapeno slices.


Kahm ong ba (“Thank you” – feminine) to “Karen” for introducing me to one of my favorite foods.


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