What makes Vietnamese food special? Is it, as Vietnamese cooks claim, the perfect balance of flavors? Is it the use of copious amounts of fresh herbs? Is it the bright and fresh appearance of the cooked dishes?
For Vietnamese food lovers, I’m sure we all have different reasons for being smitten. For me, it is a blend of familiarity and mystery. Like most Southeast Asian cuisines, Vietnamese cooking is highly influenced by Chinese culinary traditions. But Vietnamese food is, at the same time, un-Chinese in many ways as it is also subtly French (Vietnam was a French colony for over half a century) yet still heavily ethnic. The combination of all of that is what makes Vietnamese food unique. And charming. And comforting.
If there is one thing shared by Southeast Asian cuisines, it is the liberal use of spices. But unlike the food in many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, the spices in Vietnamese food are hintful rather than bold and aggressive. Flamboyance is not a word that I can associate with Vietnamese food either as it is meticulous and graceful and almost always quaint.
All these qualities are, for me, best embodied in what is probably the most ubiquitous, and at the same time the most iconic, of Vietnamese dishes. I’m talking about pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. Although the most widely accepted definition is a noodle dish with thin slices of beef or chicken served with fresh herbs on top and the side, the variations of pho are many. The beef or chicken sometimes gives way to shrimp, squid beef balls, tripe, or other cuts of meat. Three elements stay the same, however the base of the soup (meat bones, charred garlic, charred onion, and charred ginger), the rice noodles, and the garnish. This Vietnamese pork ribs and noodle dish will probably not fall within the definition of pho as no charred garlic, onion or ginger went into the soup. Rather, the pork ribs are marinated overnight in traditional Vietnamese seasonings and then simmered long and slow to make a richly flavored broth.
Put the sugar, salt, fish sauce, onions or shallots, and garlic in the blender or food processor and process until the mixture forms a paste. Place the cut ribs in a bowl. Add the paste. Mix. Cover and leave to marinate overnight. Place the marinated pork ribs in a pot. Cover with water. Add the peppercorns, onion and garlic. Bring to the boil; skim off scum as it rises. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for an hour and a half to two hours or until the pork meat is very tender. When the pork is nearly done, cook the rice noodles according to package directions. Divide the noodles among four bowls. Add two to three pieces of ribs per bowl. Pour in hot broth. Garnish with bean sprouts, onion leaves, cilantro, crisp onion, garlic bits and lemon wedges.