“Can we have phở for dinner?” my son asked as he arrived home from school. A loud sneeze followed by a few sniffles and a wipe of his nose with his shirt’s sleeve confirmed cold season’s arrival in his class.
Chicken noodle soup was our go-to comfort meal when a family member was sick, but now, living in Hanoi, the easy access to phở gà, Vietnam’s own chicken-and-rice-noodle soup, has replaced that.
Cold season has provided another opportunity to taste my way through the stalls that dot Hanoi, the birthplace of phở, and gather information on what makes the best phở gà, pronounced “feu gah.” Emerging out of a time of hardship when cooks began to use chicken because of a beef shortage during World War II, the recipe continues to evolve, integrating modern influences.
Phở bò, beef rice noodle soup, may be more well known, but the devoted fans of phở gà I spoke with believe the chicken version has more subtle flavors that shouldn’t be masked by the addition of spices, as in the beef version. Preparing a delicious bowl of phở gà requires patience and the right ingredients. A vendor who has been making phở gà for 24 years summed it up best: “We are all using the same ingredients, but the real skill is the technique you use and knowing how the broth should taste when it is ready.”
Vendors have loyal followings that span generations. While sampling one of my bowls of phở gà, I struck up a conversation with my dining neighbor, a 38-year-old office worker, who told me he’s been coming to the vendor since he was a little boy. Whenever he returns to Hanoi from a work trip, his first meal is from his favorite phở vendor. Similarly, an elderly woman at another stall recalled when the cook started working with his parents. She said she believes the minerals and proteins in phở gà bring good health. Finishing her bowl, she mentioned that she tries “to eat here three or four days a week. Cook Hai’s phở gà gives me energy to do my daily activities and continues to keep me healthy.”
What makes the best phở gà? Here’s a look at the key elements that contribute to making a superlative bowl.
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The cooks with the most devoted followers and busiest stalls insist that free-range chickens produce chewy meat and the best-flavored broth. Since 1978, the proprietor of Anh Hai Phở Gà has been filling bowls of his delicious broth in the Truc Bach district. It is becoming harder for him to find a consistent, reliable source of free-range chickens. He’s noticed a dip in business the last few years and believes his customers taste the difference when he has had to substitute with inferior poultry.
Cooks and diners all agree the clarity and taste of the broth is what sets apart a superior bowl of phở from an average one. A clear broth with great depth of flavor is most desired. Hanoian cooks prefer not to add rock sugar as their southern counterparts do. Interestingly, the majority of cooks quietly indicated that they use some pork leg bones in the broth because they believe it produces a naturally sweeter-tasting broth. It also adds additional gelatin to the broth, allowing the flavors to linger on the lips longer. This recent change in vendors’ large-batch recipes may also be connected to the bird flu epidemic in 2005. Chicken continues to cost more, and the use of pork bones helps keep prices low for customers.
Unlike in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where phở sellers like to add bean sprouts and offer a plate of herbs as a garnish, northern cooks and eaters prefer simple garnishes of briefly blanched whites of scallions with a generous sprinkling of the thinly sliced scallion greens and coriander. You may occasionally come across a vendor with some thinly sliced Thai basil in the mix. During the last decade, some vendors started to add a good pinch of thinly sliced lime leaf to bring a pleasant citrusy fragrance and flavor to the dish.
Whether you choose to prepare a Hanoi version of phở gà or garnish it as your favorite nearby Vietnamese restaurant does, be sure to select a free-range chicken and take care in preparing the broth. Not matter what, it will be good for your health and soul.
Hanoi Chicken Noodle Soup (Phở gà)
The key to making a clear chicken broth is not to boil the chicken and bones. Instead, cook the broth at a very gentle simmer. Depending on the size of the chicken, this recipe may leave you with some extra cooked chicken. I use it to make a couple of sandwiches or salads for lunch. Similarly, if you are cooking for a couple or a family of four, freeze any leftover stock (and any leftover chicken) in either 2-cup or 4-cup portions. It will save you much time when you feel the need for a quick, reinvigorating bowl of Hanoi chicken noodle soup. All you’ll need to do is rehydrate some noodles and quickly assemble the garnish.
Prep time: 25 minutes, much of it done during cooking
Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
3½ to 4 pounds whole skin-on chicken
3½ quarts water
2 teaspoons salt
8 Asian shallots or 3 French shallots
2-inch piece of ginger, skin on
1 14-ounce package of banh pho noodles (also called rice sticks)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
¼ cup fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, roughly chopped
2 kaffir lime leaves, rib removed and thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into 6 wedges
2 Thai red chilis, thinly sliced
1. Cut the tips of the wings and whole legs off the chicken and place, along with the body, in a 5½ quart pot. Add the water and salt and bring to a simmer over a medium-high heat. After about 15 minutes scum will start to rise to the surface. Use a ladle to carefully skim off the scum for the next five minutes. When the water begins to simmer, turn the heat down to low. Skim off any remaining scum and discard. Partially cover the pot and gently simmer for another 25 minutes.
2. While the chicken simmers, put a small wire grilling rack on top of a gas burner. Place the shallots and ginger on the rack and turn the burner on medium high to char the shallot and ginger skins. Use tongs to rotate the shallots and ginger until all of the outside is charred (about 4 to 5 minutes for shallots; 5 to 7 minutes for ginger).
3. Alternatively, turn the broiler of the oven on and place the shallots and ginger on a baking sheet. Put the baking sheet on the level closest to the top heating element. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shallot and ginger skins are charred. Turn the shallots and ginger over and cook for another 5 minutes or until the rest of them are charred.
4. Set aside the charred shallots and ginger on a plate to cool for a few minutes.
5. Use your hands to rub off the skins of the shallots and a paring knife to scrape off the skin from the ginger. Briefly rinse the shallots and ginger under running water to remove any remaining black bits. Cut the ginger in half lengthwise and set aside with the shallots.
6. Turn off the burner for the broth. Uncover and remove the chicken legs and body and place in a large bowl to cool for 15 minutes or until you can easily handle with your hands. Pull off the skin from the breasts and legs and discard. Remove the meat from each side of the breastbone in two whole pieces and set aside. Remove the meat from the legs in large chunks and set aside with the breast meat.
7. Put the carcass, bones, shallots and ginger into the broth. Bring the broth back to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Reduce to low and cook for 30 minutes.
8. Place the rice noodles in a large bowl and cover by 1 inch with hot water. Allow the noodles to hydrate and soften for 20 minutes. Drain in a colander.
9. Fill a medium-sized pot with water and bring to a simmer over high heat.
10. Remove the bones, shallots and ginger and discard. Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer into another pot. Stir in the fish sauce and keep warm over low heat.
11. Cut the white/light green parts of the scallions into 2-inch pieces. Set aside.
12. Thinly slice the green part of the scallion and mix with the coriander in a small bowl and set aside.
13. Cut the chicken into thin slices and set aside.
14. When the water begins to simmer, add the white parts of the scallion, cook for 10 seconds and remove using a slotted spoon or Chinese wire spider. Set aside.
15. Place the noodles in the water and cook for 15 seconds. Drain the noodles and immediately divide equally into six large soup bowls. Place some slices of chicken and a few pieces of the blanched scallion on top of the noodles. Garnish with a generous pinch of scallion greens and coriander. Place a pinch of sliced lime leaf in the center of the bowl.
16. Pour two cups of broth over the chicken and noodles and serve with the lime wedges and chili slices.
Note: Many Vietnamese cooks and eaters prefer to leave the skin on the sliced chicken.
Main photo: A bowl of chicken pho. Credit: Cameron Stauch