family · Soups

A secret life

Warm steamy comfort in an oversized bowlMy grandfather was an interesting man.  As a child I found his stories tedious because I would rather have been out riding my bike or playing hopscotch, and he tended to drone on and on.  What I did appreciate were all the unique gifts I had from the places he visited.

I had an address book in Arabic from his time in Libya.  It was not very useful as the Arabic alphabet doesn’t have 26 characters, so you couldn’t even assign values straight across.  It was leather bound and had a pen though. I have a camel, also from Libya. It was actually part of a set of three he sent to my mother to make a part of the Christmas story – the camels of the kings of the east. When the daughters left home, she split up the set and we each have one. I suppose a singular carved camel looks odd, but to me it has meaning.

When he was in Saigon, he sent an Ao Dai (which I always thought was pronounced “out-si”), a beautiful hand embroidered silk dress, split up the side with white silk trousers underneath.  Mine was light green and I still have it.

And those stories he used to tell.  I wish I had listened.  Late in his life people transcribed conversations with him.  Some of them were published in “family only” books.  One of the relatives published a huge tome of geneaology, giving a couple of pages to my grandfather and his secret life.

Secret life?  It was just my grampa, who sent us silly birthday cards and convinced us he could take better naps if we would just hold his shoulder down with our heads.  Oh yes, we did always fall asleep too.  How sneaky was that?

When he passed away I went to visit my grandmother.  She asked me to look at something and tell me if it was “real” or just a mass produced item.  It was an envelope with “licked” stamps, not a governmental franking, containing a certificate signed by then-president Ronald Reagan.  It said that although people were still not allowed to know about his life’s work, the entire nation was grateful for what he had done.

So what had he done?  The short answer is we still don’t know.  He had contracted polio as a child, which left him slightly disfigured and unfit for armed service.  Wanting to serve his country, he took on some other military obligation.  On the outside he worked with power companies in various countries.  Whilst there, it is hinted he did clandestine work.  We are told the exact nature of his work cannot be revealed as it would yet compromise people and organizations still in place.  It sounds like a great spy novel which took place under our noses.

Having heard of Grampa’s great love of the Vietnamese people (he was there before the war), I nonetheless had an image of war; it was the televised version of the country.  Because of that, I shunned the cuisine.  Silly, but to me Vietnam was a land of swamps where machine guns left people dying or festering of strange tropical diseases.  It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I broke down and tried Pho (pronounced fuh), the Vietnamese rice noodle soup.  Although not as frequent as Starbucks, there are nonetheless hordes of purveyors in the Seattle area.  Being Pacific Rim, we have a large population of Vietnamese, and they bring with them, as all American immigrants did, their culture and their food.

The first time I had Pho, I knew it was something I could eat frequently.  Finish a bowl and you’ll be using the toilet soon as the broth, oh that lovely spicey shiny broth, forms the basis and is amply represented in the huge bowls.  Couple it with the amazing aromas eminating from the spices in the soup and the herbs which augment it, and it rockets to the top of the comfort foods list.  It’s so good I almost want to get sick in order to ask for it to make me feel better!

And the perfect recipe?  I’m going to recommend this one from Jaden of Jaden’s Steamy Kitchen, with the admonition that you follow her advice to make the broth the day before and skim off the congealed fat.

Next on the list?  I think I’ll need to figure out how to make rice noodles so I don’t have to run to the store every time I want to make this.

Vietnamese Pho

Adapted from The Steamy Kitchen


  • 2 onions, halved
  • 4″ nub of ginger, halved lengthwise
  • 5-6 lbs of good beef bones, preferably leg and knuckle 1 lb of beef meat – chuck, brisket, rump, cut into large slices [optional]
  • 6 quarts of water
  • 1 package of Pho Spices [1 cinnamon stick, 1 tbl coriander seeds, 1 tbl fennel seeds, 5 whole star anise, 1 cardamom pod, 6 whole cloves – in mesh bag]
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt (halve if using regular table salt)
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 1 inch chunk of yellow rock sugar (about 1 oz) – or 1oz of regular sugar


  • 2 lbs rice noodles (dried or fresh)
  • cooked beef from the broth
  • 1/2 lb flank, london broil, sirloin or eye of round, sliced as thin as possible.
  • big handful of each: mint, cilantro, basil
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges
  • 2-3 chili peppers, sliced
  • 2 big handfuls of bean sprouts
  • sliced green or spring onions
  • Hoisin sauce
  • Sriracha hot sauce


Char: Turn your broiler on high and move rack to the highest spot. Place ginger and onions on baking sheet. Brush just a bit of cooking oil on the cut side of each. Broil on high until ginger and onions begin to char. Turn over and continue to char. This should take a total of 10-15 minutes.

Parboil the bones: Fill large pot (12-qt capacity) with cool water. Boil water, and then add the bones, keeping the heat on high. Boil vigorously for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse the bones and rinse out the pot. Refill pot with bones and 6 qts of cool water. Bring to boil over high heat and lower to simmer. Using a ladle or a fine mesh strainer, remove any scum that rises to the top.

Boil broth: Add ginger, onion, spice packet, beef, sugar, fish sauce, salt and simmer uncovered for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the beef meat and set aside (you’ll be eating this meat later in the bowls) Continue simmering for another 1 1/2 hours. Strain broth and return the broth to the pot. Taste broth and adjust seasoning – this is a crucial step. If the broth’s flavor doesn’t quite shine yet, add 2 teaspoons more of fish sauce, large pinch of salt and a small nugget of rock sugar (or 1 teaspoon of regular sugar). Keep doing this until the broth tastes perfect.

Prepare noodles & meat: Slice your flank/london broil/sirloin as thin as possible – try freezing for 15 minutes prior to slicing to make it easier. Remember the cooked beef meat that was part of your broth? Cut or shred the meat and set aside. Arrange all other ingredients on a platter for the table. Your guests will “assemble” their own bowls. Follow the directions on your package of noodles – there are many different sizes and widths of rice noodles, so make sure you read the directions. For some fresh rice noodles, just a quick 5 second blanch in hot water is all that’s needed. Dried noodles, depending on thickness, about 45 seconds in boiling water.

Ladling: Bring your broth back to a boil. Line up your soup bowls next to the stove. Fill each bowl with rice noodles, shredded cooked beef and raw meat slices. As soon as the broth comes back to a boil, ladle into each bowl. the hot broth will cook your raw beef slices. Serve immediately. Guests can garnish their own bowls as they wish.


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