Though less widely consumed in its native Vietnam than its beefy cousin, chicken pho is a wonderfully light soup infused with the same ginger, cinnamon and star anise flavors. This pho has the added benefit of being on the table less than two hours after you start cooking.
If you wish to use MSG to accentuate the chicken flavor, add 1 1/2 teaspoons to the broth when you add the salt.
Pho 75 restaurateur Le Thiep with his chicken pho.
(Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
The specific ingredients for a proper pho can be gathered from many supermarkets. But a Vietnamese or Asian grocery store will offer an extensive selection of cuts of beef, produce items and an entire aisle of Asian noodles. Here are some important components of pho:
Pho noodles, also called "rice sticks," are labeled banh in Vietnamese. They come in varying sizes but the kind most commonly served in pho restaurants has the thickness of thin spaghetti. Rice noodles can be purchased dried or fresh in the Asian section of most supermarkets. Star anise, so-called because it is shaped like an eight-pointed star, is the dried seed pod of the star anise flower. It tastes much like anise, only more intense.
Chinese rock sugar is sold in chunks and has a complex flavor that results from a combination of sugars and honey.
Another traditional component of authentic pho is monosodium glutamate, or MSG. MSG has the effect of brightening flavors already present in foods. Americans have long been distrustful of the seasoning, fearing it caused adverse reactions ranging from headaches to chest pain. After commissioning an independent study in 1995, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined that MSG was a "safe food ingredient for most people when eaten at customary levels." People with severe, poorly controlled asthma, or those with "MSG symptom complex" -- intolerance to MSG when eaten in large quantities -- may be affected by the flavor enhancer, the FDA said. The federal agency, in its labeling requirements, says that any monosodium glutamate used as an ingredient in food shall be declared by its common or usual name.
-- Ed Bruske
For the broth:
4-inch piece ginger root, unpeeled
14 medium shallots, peeled
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Two 3-pound chickens (preferably free-range for optimal flavor)
3 whole scallions
5 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
1-ounce piece Chinese rock sugar (may substitute 2 teaspoons palm or light brown sugar)
For the assembled pho:
1 pound dried or fresh rice noodles
A bowl of cilantro leaves
A bowl of finely chopped scallions
Plate of Thai basil sprigs