I have my eye on a thing or two, I admit. Mostly frivolous stuff I don't need—another sweater, new boots, some cookware. But with our family's departure to Mali, West Africa nearing, the excess of gifts being advertised, given and received each holiday season really strikes me.
A West African friend noticed soon after he arrived in the US that many people dump old bikes on the curb, free for the taking. He told me in astonishment, “if you throw out your bike in Africa, you're walking.” Most of us could ride our second bike, skateboard, car, or scooter, I'll bet.
In the midst of the impending holiday frenzy, I had a chance to spend an evening with my friend Thuy, learning to make Pho. Pho, which simple means “noodle” in Vietnamese, is the country's national soup. It features a deliciously spiced broth, rice noodles, and a variety of meats, all garnished with a “salad” on the top. The salad might include romaine lettuce, limes, hot chiles and green onions—sweet, crunchy, hot, salty, sour and bitter intermingle in each flavor-packed bite. Thuy walked me through the Pho-making steps; we started by gathering ingredients at the neighborhood Vietnamese grocery store Viet Hoa, and then returning home to roast spices, chop garnishes and finally assemb the amazing soup.
As we cooked, we talked, laughed, drank wine, and played with my kids. She told me about her mother who had come from Vietnam when Thuy was just a baby, and the difference between Pho in the north and south of Vietnam. She helped us pronounce the words on the package of noodles “Bahn Pho Thui”, uttering strange gutteral sounds that just sounded funny when we tried to copy her.
After she left, I realized that I had just been given one of the best gifts I could ask for— friendship. Friendship has so many components. Learning to cook, sharing the flavors of your history, and the smells and tastes of your family is such a powerful and intimate way to nurture a friendship. That night, when Thuy taught me how to roast an onion over an open flame, she shared a part of herself, her family and culture with me that I will cherish each time I cook up a batch of Pho.
The gift of true friendship doesn't cost a dime. It can be easily re-gifted, and doesn't need fancy wrapping or packaging. When my friend Amy came over the recently, we spent a couple hours making Pho. I showed her what I had learned, and we talked and laughed. Spending time with friends cooking nourishing foods not only feeds our bodies, it also nourishes loving and lasting connections to our family and communities. Cooking together is the perfect holiday gift.Thuy's Pho
For the Stock
2 chicken breast, bone-in, or one whole chicken.
About 20 whole star anise
5 whole cloves
¼-1/3 cup whole coriander seeds
2-3 T black pepper corns
2 whole cinnamon sticks
1 whole onion
about 2 Tbsp raw cane sugar (lump)
For the Soup
fresh or dried rice noodles
organic beef tenderloin, thinly sliced
5 scallions, finely sliced
1 bunch cilantro chopped(mix cilantro and scallions in one dish)
2 limes cut into wedges
basil or mint, leaves plucked
bean sprouts or romaine
Bring water to boil in a large stock pot. Boil chicken until tender.
Remove the chicken from the water. Set aside until cool enough to shred. Set aside meat.
Bring chicken broth back to a simmer.
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Put whole spices in pan and heat, turning frequently, until you smell their fragrances. About 5-7 minutes. Do not let them burn! Add the spices to the broth.
Heat a whole onion over gas flame or grill, turning frequently until outer skin peels off and some brown marks are on onion, about 4 minutes or so. Add to broth.
Boil/simmer the broth, slightly covered on medium until the brth takes on the fragrance of the spices, about 50 minutes – 1 hour.
Add sugar to taste—it should be somewhat sweet. I found that about 2 T works for a large stock pot.
Add salt, too, about 1-2 T.
Taste it and adjust salt and sugar until you love it. This can be frozen!
Place bowls of lime wedges, basil, bean sprouts, cilantro and scallion, and hoisin and shrichra on table.
Cook noodles according to directions.
Place some noodles in a bowl. Ladle hot stock over noodles through a strainer.
Place raw tenderloin slices into hot stock, along with some shredded chicken (or tofu if you like)
Top with generous portion of bean sprouts, cilantro/scallion, a wedge of lime, basil, and a hoisin and sriracha to taste.
Slurp and enjoy!