Vietnam – Pho ga and spring rolls

Vietnam – Pho ga and spring rolls

My favorite thing about traveling the world is that you have absolutely, positively no idea what is about to happen.  You know that you’re going to tour Saigon, but you have no idea you’re about to race through the city streets on the back of a moped.  You can’t imagine the warmth that will surround you as you eat on the floor of a Vietnamese family’s home.  You definitely don’t know that some crazy-pants is going to throw you over his shoulder in a (hopefully) feigned kidnapped attempt from the dance club that you ALSO never dreamed of experiencing.  The only known is the unknown.  That is magical.  That is why I do what I do. Vietnam was one of the warmest, most fascinating, and most unexpected adventures of my life.  I can taste the street vendor pho ga to this day and it brings back memories of buzzing-bee motor bikes and pointy-hatted river rides.

A Vietnamese home away from home  My Vietnam vacation was  a dare against myself while I was in school in Hong Kong.  Meg and Kevin had just returned to the US.  I had a free weekend.  My non-English speaking travel agent in Hong Kong handed me a multi-colored, poorly translated flyer with lots of stars and a cheap price, so I handed him my credit card and packed my bags.  What could go wrong, right?   I spent the first morning freaking out and thinking, “um, Vietnam, on my own? Reeaally? More importantly, how am I going to cross the street without getting flattened by a moped?”  Eventually intrigue took over and I booked a city tour with the concierge. The next thing I knew, I was touring around Saigon (Ho Chi Minh officially) with a delightful English speaking girl who was almost exactly my age.  I spent the next day touring the Me Kong River area doing every touristy thing I could find.  The highlight of my trip and one of my favorite nights in my life happened when my original guide invited me to dinner with her family. She picked me up on her moped, fed me a delicious dinner in their house, and then took me out to a Vietnamese dance club.  I felt like Angelina Jolie for a few hours.  Suitors surrounded me and refused to let me sit out even a single a dance.  I was in a dream world until some wacko tried to steal me.   My temporary Grandma yelled at him and we decided it was probably time to get out of there.  We stopped for a little pho ga on the way home and put a bow on a memory that I know I will remember and recount for an eternity.

Vietnam tour, river, pho, moped

Vietnam tour, river, pho, moped

An Austin Pho ga and spring rolls experience Please meet my friend Roxy.   Roxy is an absolute doll – the kind of person that you think just couldn’t be as sweet as she seems.  You’re going to meet her again for the UK and -spoiler alert – she’ll have a fiance in tow!  Roxy sometimes plays substitute mom to  Ella Fitgerald (my adorable Olde English Bulldogge) while I’m traveling the world.    Ella is my favorite non-human living creature and ranks pretty darn high on the list when I add in humans, so you can imagine I would only entrust her to a special soul.  Roxy is the epitome of a special soul.   Full menu:

Inspirational recipe and resources

Vietworldkitchen inpsired the pho.   I learned to make the spring rolls at a cooking class at Whole Foods in Austin.

Tweaks and cautionary tales

  • If you are a newer cook, you might be tempted to skip the extra chicken backs.  Don’t.  It’s not gross and it really makes a huge difference.   I’m actually going to keep real broth around all the time now.  Besides, it has the added benefit of reducing cellulite.
  • Here’s how you cut up a whole chicken
  • Make a quick list of all of the accompanying ingredients and make sure you lay them all out.
  • Fresh is REALLY important here.
  • The rock sugar and thai chilies might be harder to find.  Check your Asian grocer or buy it on Amazon if you have the time.

How to make pho ga and spring rolls healthier

Both of these are pretty healthy already.  Make sure you skim the fat of course.

Nitty-Gritty – Pho Ga

  • Learning Curve: medium (unless you already know how to make a great broth)
  • Pre-work: you could make the broth in advance as it takes a while to do it properly
  • Vegetarian: no
  • Healthy: Yes
  • Freezes well:  yes – extremely- just pick up fresh garnishes
Vietnam - Pho ga and spring rolls
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Pho Ga is a Vietnamese staple. The beef version is more easily found, but this version is just as tasty and slightly healthier
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Serves: 8
  • 2 yellow onions, unpeeled
  • Thick 4-inch section fresh ginger, unpeeled
  • 1 whole chicken, 4 pounds
  • 3 pounds chicken backs, necks, or other bony chicken parts
  • 5 quarts water
  • 1½ tablespoons salt
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1-inch chunk rock sugar* (about 1 ounce)
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted in a dry skillet for about 1 minute until fragrant
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1 small or ½ large bunch cilantro (bound stems about 1 inch in diameter)
  • 1½–2 pounds small flat rice noodles
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes and drained
  • 3 or 4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
  • ⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
  • Black pepper
  • Optional:
  • 3 cups bean sprouts (about ½ pound)
  • 10 to 12 sprigs mint (húng) 10 to 12 sprigs Thai basil* (húng quế)
  • 12 to 15 fresh culantro* (ngò gai) leaves
  • 2 or 3 Thai or serrano chiles, thinly sliced
  • 2 or 3 limes, cut into wedges
  1. Place the onions and ginger directly on the cooking grate of a medium-hot charcoal or gas grill or a gas stove with a medium flame, or on a medium-hot burner of an electric stove. Let the skin burn (if you’re working indoors, turn on the exhaust fan and open a window), using tongs to rotate onion and ginger occasionally and to grab and discard any flyaway onion skin.
  2. After 15 minutes, the onions and ginger will have softened slightly and become sweetly fragrant. There may even be some bubbling. You do not have to blacken the entire surface. When amply charred, remove from the heat and let cool.
  3. Rinse the cooled onions under warm running water, rubbing off the charred skin. Trim off and discard the blackened root and stem ends. Use a vegetable peeler, paring knife, or the edge of a teaspoon to remove the ginger skin. Hold it under warm water to wash off any blackened bits. Halve the ginger lengthwise and bruise lightly with the broad side of a cleaver or chef’s knife. Set the onions and ginger aside.
  4. Rinse the chicken under cool water. Detach each wing by bending it back and cutting it off at the shoulder joint. Add the wings and neck, if included, to the chicken parts. If the heart, gizzard, and liver have been included, discard them or save for another use.) Set the wingless chicken aside.
  5. Remove and discard any loose pieces of fat from the chicken parts. Wielding a heavy cleaver designed for chopping bones, whack the bones to break them partway or all the way through, making the cuts at 1- to 2-inch intervals, depending on the size of the part. This exposes the marrow, which enriches the broth.
  6. To achieve a clear broth, you must first parboil and rinse the chicken parts. Put them in a stockpot (about 12-quart capacity) and add cold water just to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes to release the impurities. Dump the chicken parts and water into the sink (make sure it is clean), and then rinse the parts with water to wash off any clinging residue. Quickly scrub the stockpot clean and return the chicken parts to the pot. Put the chicken into the pot, breast side up.
  7. Pour in the water and snuggle the chicken in between the parts so that it is covered with water. Bring to a boil over high heat and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Use a ladle or large, shallow spoon to skim off any scum that rises to the top. Add the onions, ginger, salt, fish sauce, rock sugar, coriander seeds, cloves, and cilantro and cook, uncovered, for 25 minutes, adjusting the heat if needed to maintain a gentle simmer.
  8. At this point, the chicken is cooked; its flesh should feel firm yet still yield a bit to the touch. Use a pair of tongs to grab the chicken and transfer it to a large bowl. Flush the chicken with cold water and drain well, then it set aside for 15 to 20 minutes until it is cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, keep the broth at a steady simmer.
  9. When chicken can be handled, use a knife to remove each breast half and the whole legs (thigh and drumstick). Don’t cut these pieces further, or they’ll lose their succulence. Set aside on a plate to cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate; bring to room temperature before assembling the bowls.
  10. Return the leftover carcass to the stockpot and adjust the heat to simmer the broth gently for another 11/2 hours. Avoid a hard boil, or the broth will turn cloudy.
  11. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve (or a coarse-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth) positioned over a pot. Discard the solids. Use a ladle to skim as much fat from the top of the broth as you like. (To make this task easier, you can cool the broth, refrigerate overnight, lift off the solidified fat, and then reheat before continuing.) Taste and adjust the flavor with additional salt, fish sauce, and rock sugar. There should be about 4 quarts (16 cups) broth.
  12. Assemble the pho bowls: If using dried noodles, cover them with hot tap water and let soak for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are pliable and opaque. Drain in a colander. If using fresh rice noodles, untangle them, place in a colander, and rinse briefly under cold running water.
  13. Cut the cooked chicken into slices about ¼ inch thick, cutting the meat off the bone as necessary. If you don’t want to eat the skin, discard it first. Set the chicken aside. Ready the yellow onion, scallions, cilantro, and pepper for adding to the bowls. Arrange the garnishes on a plate and put on the table.
  14. To ensure good timing, bring the broth to a simmer over medium heat as you are assembling the bowls. (For an extra treat, drop in any unused white scallion sections and let them poach in the broth. Add the poached white scallion sections (called hành chần) to a few lucky bowls when ladling out the broth.) At the same time, fill a large pot with water and bring to a rolling boil.
  15. For each bowl, place a portion of the noodles on a vertical-handle strainer (or mesh sieve) and dunk the noodles in the boiling water. As soon as they have collapsed and lost their stiffness (10 to 20 seconds), pull the strainer from the water, letting the water drain back into the pot. Empty the noodles into a bowl. If you like, once you have finished blanching the noodles, you can blanch the bean sprouts for 30 seconds. They should wilt slightly but retain some crunch. Drain and add to the garnishes.
  16. Top each bowl of noodles with chicken, arranging the slices flat. Place a mound of yellow onion in the center and then shower some scallion and cilantro on top. Finish with a sprinkle of pepper.
  17. Raise the heat and bring the broth to a rolling boil. Do a final tasting and make any last-minute flavor adjustments. Ladle about 2 cups broth into each bowl, distributing the hot liquid evenly to warm all the ingredients. Serve immediately with the garnishes.

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