NLY MY REALLY LONGTIME readers know this, but I got my start in soup. My very first non-Ramen foray into cooking, in a cockroach-terrorized Philadelphia micro-kitchen, was something called cock-a-leekie soup. Before that, when I lived in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I ate a particular variety of beef phở almost every day at a particular restaurant in my neighborhood. I told everyone it was the best—their meatballs didn’t have those kernels of gristle or hoof or whatever it is that you sometimes find in phở meatballs—but nobody listened. What made me the expert?
Well, whaddayah know, skeptics, contrarians, and haters? New York Magazine has pronounced the phở at Pho Bang the finest phở in New York: “The national soup of Vietnam isn’t hard to come by in Chinatown, but this one stands out for its rich, mellow flavor and beautiful balance. The #1 combination rice-noodle beef soup is heavy on the pinkish eye of round and light on the brisket, with just a sliver of tendon and whisper of omosa, or cow stomach, which, for some, is plenty ($5.50; 157 Mott St., nr. Grand St.; 212-966-3797).” I can’t plead superb judgment, though; I liked Pho Bang mainly because it was in lurching distance.
[Phở ga: the one that got away.]
Despite dining at Pho Bang dozens of times, I never got around to sampling the phở ga, or chicken phở. I couldn’t imagine how, in a phở contest, chicken could compete with beef, or how, in a chicken soup contest, phở could compete with, say, the purity and goodness of Campbell’s. So, overcome by curiosity, I gave this recipe a try. “Rich, mellow flavor” is putting it too mildly. This broth is liquid gold, and has made star anise my favorite spice by a wide margin. (If you’re wondering why anyone need have a favorite spice: This was an actual question on a Penzey’s application I came dangerously close to filling out.)
The secret to beef phở is cow parts. Look at this guide: You’ve got flank, crunchy flank, fatty flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, and meatballs. The secret to chicken phở is the broth, plain and simple. Chicken is chicken, and this goes double for chicken that cooked off a stewing bird for hours. The meat isn’t really the point, which is why most of it—along with a hundred tiny bones—ends up in the trash.
All credible phở recipes call for charred onion and ginger, and I’m in no position to argue, but I have to admit that I didn’t taste much ginger in the finished product. I did taste excellence, however, so I’m not going to advise you to deviate from Steamy Kitchen’s procedure: “Place ginger and onion on a small baking sheet. The top of the onion should be about 4″ from the oven’s heating element. Set to broil on high for 15 minutes. Turn the onion and ginger occasionally, to get an even char. . . . After cooling, rub to get the charred skin off the onion and use a butter knife to scrape the skin off the ginger.” Perhaps my oven sucks, but I needed about twice as long to get the vaguest intimations of an “even char.”
Once you’ve prepared your onion, ginger, bouquet garni (two tablespoons of coriander seeds, four cloves, two star anise pods), and “small bunch of cilantro stems,” it’s time for the fun part: mangling your stewing bird. Part of your broth’s chicken flavor comes from chicken meat, but most of it comes from marrow. The more thoroughly you score or break the chicken’s bones, the more delicious, super-healthy marrow leaches out into your broth. Don’t be shy! Those bones will give a surprising amount of resistance, but if you persevere, you will show that nasty, beady-eyed little bastard who’s boss.
I’m tired, and it’s Christmas Eve, so I will now refer you back to the recipe. DO parboil your chicken and change its water! DO simmer your broth for as long as you can stand (the fragrance will make this extremely difficult). And DO strain the finished product with at minimum a fine-mesh strainer and preferably a cheesecloth. The satisfaction of making perfectly fine, particle-free broth from a nasty mess of chicken carcass is well worth the trouble. It’d make a fine meal even without the chicken, noodles, mung beans, cilantro, sliced jalapeño peppers, hot sauce, and, in this case, “bonus shrimp.”