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Veganizing a Savory Vietnamese Noodle Soup

Going vegan takes moxie. By abstaining from animal-based foods, you exclude yourself from a wide swath of culinary experiences that are – ingredients aside – worth sharing. Not all of us at Chefstro are vegans, but we respect the decision, and our personal chefs can customize most of our menus for a vegan diet. In his inaugural dispatch, one of our team members (a home cook, not a chef) chronicles his first attempt to bridge the dietary distance and cook a vegan pho:

The moment for action had come. Too many times had I sat across from my wife – an omnivore – watching her enjoy a savory Vietnamese pho while I tried to content myself with summer rolls or a plate of veggie fried rice. Nothing against these options, but as a vegan, I have long felt excluded from the rich gustatory experience that pho seems, from the other side of the carcass divide, to deliver. I did find a delicious pho at one vegan restaurant, but that was in New York (see below), and I am in Boston. Unacceptable.

So last Saturday, I decided that my pho privation gone on long enough. It was time to take matters into my own hands and make a run at vegan pho. Without disappearing all the way into the black hole of research, I did some poking on the web, put together a list of ingredients, and . . . asked my wife for help.

As a noodle-soup-loving Thai, she has a great feel for how to combine spices, herbs, and seasonings. She’s also a noodle genius. That said, she doesn’t like to measure or to work from recipes, so I knew that balancing my impulse to organize everything with her sometimes chaotic dance of improvisation would be a challenge.

My wife started things off by toasting some dried Thai chili peppers to make chili powder – one of the standard accompaniments to noodle soup in Thailand. She liberally dusted the pan with salt to minimize smoke. The entire apartment soon filled with microscopic airborne chili particles, choking us and making us sneeze, but for those who like to get their spice on, it’s well worth the pain.

When I could breathe again without wincing, I fried up some onion, shallots, garlic, ginger, Chinese celery stalks, a cinnamon stick, a pod and a half of star anise, and a couple cloves in a dry pot. When this mix started to brown, I added about 6 cups of veggie stock (homemade earlier using the easy-peasy “bag o broth” method I discovered at the Post Punk Kitchen) and a little soy sauce.

raw broth base

I let the broth simmer while I rinsed the Thai basil and bean sprouts, and my wife chopped up some lime. She also dug out another one of her favorite condiments: fried garlic and cardamom, which she makes in batches and stores in the fridge. I recommend experimenting with cardamom. It lends unbelievable flavor to soup, but start by adding a single pod or less; it can quickly overpower an entire dish.

When the broth had been going for about half an hour, I turned the heat way down and we started to discuss noodle options. As I mentioned, my wife’s a real noodle connoisseur, and she had a specific brand in mind. All I can tell you is that they are flat rice noodles with the word “pho” on the label; they’re what I would call pat thai noodles. We didn’t happen to have any in the kitchen, so she made a quick trip to the local Asian market and picked some up.

At this point, I added our protein to the broth to warm it up. We used thin slices of tofu I’d pressed and fried in peanut oil earlier in the day.

slices of fried tofu

My wife drained and rinsed the noodles and added them straight to the broth. I think we should have kept them separate and poured the broth over the noodles in each individual bowl. Different strokes.

Here’s where her fly-by-night approach to cuisine outstripped my ability to understand and control everything about this pho. Before I knew it, she had added two more varieties of soy sauce, some of her chili powder, Chinese celery leaves, lime juice, and ketchup. That’s right, KETCHUP!

pot of vegan pho

To each of our bowls we added bean sprouts, basil, more Chinese celery leaves, Sriracha sauce, and more chili powder. Then we dug in. I have to admit that the result was pretty good. My wife wasn’t bowled over though, probably thinking of the meat-based phos she’s enjoyed over the years, or maybe even of the wonderful vegan pho we had a few weeks ago at Franchia in NYC.

vegan pho

Next time I won’t use cinnamon because, on top of the star anise, it made the broth a touch bitter. And I forgot to add hoisin sauce, which I had bought expressly for this foray into faux pho the night before. Still, I feel that I’ve won a victory of sorts. Not because I’ve mastered pho or because I think the version I cooked this weekend would necessarily satisfy meat-eating pho lovers, but because I’ve demystified a little corner of culinary territory. The first step is always the hardest, and now I have something to build on.

If you have suggestions, feel free to comment. And stay tuned for further dispatches from the Funky Fresh Vegan.

To my fellow vegans out there: know that Chefstro has recently added some plant-based menus, and we intend to add more. I know what it’s like to live on the margins of a meat-eating world. As part of team Chefstro, I constantly push for expanding our vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options. Because we deserve a flourishing, sophisticated food culture, too. Sign up to stay in the loop.