Quarantine Cuisine: How North Saigon catering chef Kim Vo makes her comforting pho ga
We’re asking Toronto chefs to show us what they cook up using basic pantry supplies while they self-isolate at home
Like many of us, chef Kim Vo is confined to her home. We asked the social-distancing chef to whip us up a meal with ingredients she already had on hand. Her recipe: a big bowl of pho ga, Vietnamese chicken noodle soup.
When Kim Vo is feeling homesick, she whips up a bowl of pho ga, a Vietnamese version of the classically comforting soup: chicken noodle. After completing culinary school in Vietnam, Vo moved to Toronto to start her own food truck biz, North Saigon. Business was good, but she eventually ditched life on the road and started a catering company.
When Vo finds herself missing her family—her mom’s back in Vietnam, her dad’s in the Prairies—she makes this soup. Growing up, the smell of pho simmering on the stove was synonymous with Saturday mornings. “In Vietnam, we eat pho for breakfast,” she says. “Although, in Canada I often find myself eating it for dinner.” Vo’s mom grew up in southern Vietnam, where herbs are plentiful and beef is a very popular soup protein. Vo, however, likes the simplicity of the type of pho more popular in Vietnam’s north, which she says is typically made with chicken and fewer herbs. “I think the herbs distract you from the flavours of pho,” says Vo. She also notes that pho ga is way quicker to make than beef-based pho, which can take up the better part of a day.
while this no-frills pho isn’t quite as good as the bowls they sling at Pho Minh, her favourite soup stall in Saigon, she thinks this easy version is like a big hug in a bowl—exactly what she needs when she’s missing her far-away folks.
1 package rice noodles
1 small whole chicken (three to four pounds)
5 litres of water
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 yellow or Spanish onion, cut in half
1 three-inch knob of ginger, cut in half
1½ tbsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp whole black pepper
1 tsp cloves
3 star anise pods (optional)
½ tbsp cardamom seeds (optional)
1 tbsp ground turmeric (optional)
1 lime (optional)
Coriander to garnish (optional)
In a skillet, dry roast (so, fry without oil) the cloves, cinnamon and black pepper on high heat for two minutes (toss in some star anise and cardamom if you have them handy). Vo notes that you need to be extremely vigilant during this step, because the spices can easily burn. Keep the ingredients moving in the pan to avoid this. Let the roasted spices cool for a few minutes then place them in a tea strainer. Loose-leaf teabags work too, as does cheese cloth, but remember to secure your parcel tightly to avoid spillage once the bag goes into the broth.
Rinse your chicken thoroughly, making sure to clean any residual innards that may have been left behind by the butcher. (We didn’t promise that all the photos would be pretty.)
Then put the chicken, onions (reserving a few slices for garnish), ginger, fish sauce, salt, sugar and the roasted spices into a large stockpot. Add in five litres of water. Bring it all to a boil then reduce the heat to low. This is going to just simmer for three hours now. Remember to keep the lid on.
Carefully remove the whole chicken from the stockpot—it’s very hot and very slippery. Vo handles it using two broad wooden spoons. She says that you can also use silicon spatulas for a better grip, but the bird needs to be handled very carefully as it’s very tender and can easily fall apart.
Now strain everything from the pot, leaving just the fat-marbled broth. For a bit of colour, Vo will sometimes coat the chicken in turmeric—but that’s more for visual pizzazz than for flavour.
Pre-soak your noodles for about 20 minutes in a bowl filled with room-temperature water. While you’re waiting, bring another pot of water to boil. When the 20 minutes is up, toss in your pre-soaked noodles for a mere two minutes. This trick will yield perfectly al dente noodles. (Alternatively, feel free to follow the directions on the package.)
Before plating, bring your stock back to a boil.
Divide your noodles into bowls (if you’re sharing, that is) and top each one with chicken and some sliced green and yellow onions.
Then add a few ladles of steaming broth to complete your meal. Vo added some homemade pickled garlic to her pho, but she says the garnish isn’t necessary (however if you want to make some, here’s a recipe.) Her bowl is also garnished with cilantro and lime, which is all optional.