Home » After Years of Tinkering, I Finally Developed a Vegan Pho That Tastes Like Childhood

After Years of Tinkering, I Finally Developed a Vegan Pho That Tastes Like Childhood

by News Times USA

Every time the weather report forecasts a snowy, rainy, or even slightly cloudy day, my fingers twitch at the thought of slurping pho—a mouthful of snappy rice noodles on a soup spoon with a basil leaf placed gingerly atop the pile, a sip of smooth, aromatic broth. Growing up, pho was the dish my family gathered around every Sunday whether we were at home or at our favorite spot in L.A.’s Chinatown. When the pho arrived, I loved to lean over my bowl and let the steam hit my face. The rest of the day I would walk around accompanied by the lingering scent of star anise, cloves, and cinnamon.

At college and far away from my family, I spent four years searching for a pho that would compare to the one I had at home. This was further complicated when I decided to pursue a mainly vegetarian diet. Every bowl of vegetarian pho I tried at restaurants was lackluster at best. The broth was too watery, the vegetables were haphazardly thrown together. It wasn’t until I had the vegetarian pho at Di An Di in Brooklyn that I felt something shift in my understanding of what a meatless pho could be, the nuances it could encapsulate. 

Instead of being watery, or worse, overly salted to make up for the lack of depth, Di An Di’s vegetarian broth was complex. Earthier than most bone-based pho broths due to the use of mushrooms, this one managed to layer the journey of flavors in the same way, from the first hit of spices to the delicate sweetness lingering at the end. Their pho toppings also leveraged wok-seared mushrooms as a stand-in for the thin slices of beef I was used to. Theirs was the pho that took me back to those Sunday meals with my family. I can’t tell you how intensely I stared at the tasting notes trying to tease out the sorcery from the minimalist description. Today the menu highlights the toppings: mushrooms, egg yolk, scallions, pickled garlic. But when I ate there in 2018, I took away two main hints: Utilize mushrooms in the broth and leverage mushrooms in the toppings. (Basically, mushrooms are everything.)

When I left New York and said a sad goodbye to Di An Di, I knew that if I wanted a vegetarian pho that tasted like home, I would have to make it myself. I started out researching pho recipes that draw from beef or ox bones because it felt necessary to learn the path in order to divert from it. Growing up, I knew vaguely about the spices necessary for a good pho broth, but I sought clarity around the foundations. I went first to Andrea Nguyen, who changed Vietnamese home cooking with her approachable recipes. I studied her work on pho, including her vegan broth for emulating chicken pho, the lighter, less earthy sibling to beef pho. I also sought out premade pho spice packets from Southeast Asian grocery stores when my mom tipped me off on her shortcut for making broth (thanks, Mẹ!). After sitting at my kitchen table sifting through the packets, I landed on what seemed to be the most common combination: cloves, star anise, cinnamon, coriander, and fennel seeds.

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