My last meal with meat was in September of 2000. It was at a Vietanamese pho restaurant with a co-worker. Pho was my favorite meal at the time, especially after visiting Vietnam and having it once or twice every day. Unfortunately, Pho Bo, by its very definition is a beef noodle soup, so my decision to become vegetarian meant that I had to give up my favorite meal and the absolutely incredible aromas that went along with it.
Or so I thought.
It’s been a full 19 months since I had my last bowl of pho, and since none of the pho restaurants offered a vegetarian version (though I’ve told they exist), I decided it was time to try and make my own. Fortunately for me, the Vegetarian Resource Group had an article about travelling in Vietnam as a vegetarian, including recipes for the broth and the soup ingredients. This past Friday night, I decided to give it a shot, praying that the aromas I fondly remembered would fill the house and the relaxed feeling I got from eating pho would return to me.
I had this feeling that recreating the soup as a vegetarian dish would be successful. I figured that the smells and tastes that go along with pho came not from the meat, but from the seasonings and fresh vegetables. With ingredients like cinnamon and the gloriously-scented star anise, it was bound to smell good while cooking.
Friday night after work, I stopped by the nearby Asian market to pick up some of the ingredients that aren’t at the local Giant: bean sprouts (a huge bagful), some seitan in a can, Napa cabbage, cilantro (available at the supermarket, but it’s more expensive), and the rice noodles (I got specifically thin “pho noodles”—they’re also available in a thicker version). I had picked up cinammon sticks a week or two earlier and got a few pods of star anise from a local health food store. The star anise was so light that it didn’t even register on the scale—they charged me 2 cents. Everything else, I had at home.
The broth is pretty basic, starting with vegetable stock, soy sauce, garlic, and onion and then adding some charred ginger, cinnamon sticks, two pods of star anise (that’s two stars), and two bay leaves. After simmering and removing the solids, I added a couple dashes of Vietnamese cinnamon for a little extra flavor. Regular ground cinnamon would work, too, but Vietnamese cinnamon (available at Whole Foods and similar places) is stronger.
The soup ingredients are also relatively basic: noodles, seitan, bean sprouts, and some greens. The recipe linked above is well written and worth following.
The entire preparation and cooking time amounted to about 35-40 minutes, not bad for a soup. With anticipation, my wife and I took our bowls and sat at the table to try this new recipe for an old favorite. After the first incredible sip, I must have blacked out with pleasure… this stuff was good! And, it was extremely similar to how I remembered traditional pho. The spices were pungent but not overpowering, the textures were proper (especially with the optional added peanuts), and it made me feel warm and comfortable. My wife, who is Vietnamese and still eats meat, also thoroughly enjoyed it. Success!
It’s hard to describe how happy I was to find a suitable vegan adaptation of a favorite meat-based dish. It’s definitely going to become part of my regular arsenal. I heartily recommend it to those of you who have been lucky enough to experience pho and those of you who haven’t, as well.
The broth is ready to be ladled over the noodles and greens.
Ryan (donning the only male Vietnamese garb in the house — the wedding ao dai) prepares the bowls.
The final product.
Sally Bernstein’s wonderful Vegetarian Journal article about travelling in Vietnam as a vegetarian. Includes the recipes I used.
A Bowl of Pho
A thorough weblog entry describing the intracies of the pho experience.
Soup restores heart, soul in many cultures
A Washington (D.C.) Times article about various comfort soups, including pho.