Pho can take hours to make – but each spoonful can be measured in social pay-offs. That’s something that chef Jerry Mai remembers from her childhood.
“I can recall going with my mum to the butcher’s in Brisbane and her looking for the best marrow bones to use. She would use her massive 40-litre stock pot and spend the day cooking pho,” she says. “All the family and friends would then come over to our house over the next couple of days to enjoy her pho. It was always very sociable and the smell of the broth with all its toasted spices would linger in the house.”
It’s a childhood memory that has powered the creation of Pho Nom, which has two locations in Melbourne. Via bowls of the Vietnamese noodle soup, Mai is resparking that sense of social connection in her own restaurants. And while the dish is famous for its long-simmered beef stock or chicken version, she knew that it was important to be inclusive to all diners, so “creating a vegan pho was a no-brainer”.
“The recipe I developed came along with only a little trial and error. It captures the spice profile of pho, but with a cleaner broth – as there’s no gelatine or fat from the bones and meat.”
However, “the process is very similar to how we make our beef or chicken pho”. Carrots, cabbage and other ingredients are simmered for up to six hours, to create a sweet and full-flavoured vegetarian broth. Toasted spices – just like the ones that perfumed her childhood home – are added: a fragrant mix of star anise, cassia, coriander seed and clove. The recipe is completed with a good round of seasoning.
“It captures the spice profile of pho, but with a cleaner broth – as there’s no gelatine or fat from the bones and meat.”
“I had a couple of vegetarian friends come try it out as well as my staff and mum. Their feedback was positive and reinforced my own feeling that it was a solid vegan option for pho lovers,” she says.
“We've had lots of great feedback from the vegan community online. It's mostly around how happy people are to find a vegan pho that still has that spice aroma and heartiness that pho is associated with.”
For siblings David and Tracy Nguyen, who run Golden Lotus in Sydney’s Newtown, a family recipe inspires their meat-free alternative. Their signature bowls of vegan pho – teeming with spiced broth and noodles – actually riff on the original meaty recipe.
“Instead of cooking bones for hours [though], we cook 20 kilograms of fresh vegetables for 10 hours everyday to create our unique vegetable soup stock,” says Tracy. She says it strongly conveys the natural sweetness of the simmered vegies. Interlaced throughout is a striking spice mix – star anise, cinnamon, cassia bark, ginger – that helps give the pho its punch and depth. The kitchen also adds mock-chicken – made with soy bean protein and tofu – to give a meaty flourish to the dish.
This vegan pho is a connection to their childhood, also – but one that strongly contasts with Mai’s.
“We grew up in a family which has a long Buddhist tradition – so we used to have vegetarian [food] twice a month for the whole day,” says Tracy. “We have learnt a lot of new dishes and recipes from our family who have been vegetarians/vegans for years.”
“When we lived in Sydney, our family would often go to Marrickville for a bowl of pho,” she says. “We would order one huge bowl, and we would dish them out into smaller bowls for the kids. It was a favourite dining experience for our family. For me, however - [as] the vegetarian at the table - it was a sorry sight!”
“I would hungrily snap up all the pho accoutrements - the bean sprouts, red chilli, Thai basil - out of jealousy that it wasn't me partaking in that incredible steaming bowl of noodle soup. I would ogle longingly at their soup and salivate over the rich, heady aromas of the broth. Truthfully, since becoming vegetarian 24 years ago, it is the only meat dish that I have ever wanted to eat. It is this memory, and this hungry desire, that inspired me to concoct my vegan pho salad.”
“During those meals when I was a pho spectator, I paid close attention to the aromas of the broth. For me, the star ingredient was always the star anise. That is the scent that stood out to me - and also reminds me of many of my mum's broths - so when I went to make my vegetarian version, star anise was the flavour and aroma I tried to bring out the most. Then, Chinese shiitake mushrooms gave the broth that umami depth that is essential to pho. I remember the first time I tested the recipe, I was home alone - and when the kids came home, [my daughter] Scout walked into the kitchen and said 'Mum, you made pho!’. That was when I knew I had nailed the recipe! She is a pho fan just like me.”
"Truthfully, since becoming vegetarian 24 years ago, it is the only meat dish that I have ever wanted to eat."
The pho salad appears in McKinnon’s Neighbourhood cookbook and it is “my favourite recipe in the whole book”, she says. “There are no fancy ingredients - all that is needed to achieve that amazing flavour is a bit of time. I love serving this salad most at book talks and cooking demonstrations. It looks pretty ordinary - like a big bowl of noodles - but when people taste it, they are always surprised by the flavour. I love that. And vegetarians are very thankful for this recipe. Finally, they too can be a pho participant, rather than a spectator!”
Get Hetty's recipe for her pho noodle salad with tofu, wombok and broccolini here.
Pho made with Vegemite might sound slightly terrifying, but the spread we know and love actually provides the perfect salty base for a delicious, albeit not-your-average pho broth. #BringBackTheClassics