Monday, 13 September 2010

Salt beef pho: East meets East End

I'm not attempting any fancy posturing with all the greenery,
the garden is simply the only place there's any light

If someone were to offer me plane tickets to a destination of my choosing I'd almost certainly plump for Vietnam. I'm pretty pleased with where I am life-wise, but I do experience the occasional pang of jealousy at those who spent their early twenties flitting about the world, engorging a rich mix of culture and foreign grub. Then I remember I would hate pretty much everything involved in travelling of the backpacking sort, and resign myself to earning a fat pay rise and seeing the world in style, or at least from a proper apartment with fluffy towels, fewer insects and air conditioning.

So my experience of Vietnamese food is limited to London's offering, but as the chefs are Vietnamese the dishes must be a pretty good approximation, right? Regardless of authenticity, I love what I've tried so recently invested in Luke Nguyen's Songs of Sapa, which technically leaves me another £20 further away from those plane tickets, but happily has brought the taste of Vietnam (probably) into my Newington Green flat.

Having dipped into the book to steal dressings and dipping sauces for other dishes I finally attempted my first full recipe, his monumental beef pho. My local butcher didn't have quite the right ingredients, so off-piste I went swapping brisket for salt brisket, and oxtail for the biggest beefy bones you did see. The results were very agreeable indeed, just the satisfyingly savoury hit I was looking for.

This is most certainly a weekend recipe, but of the 4 hours cooking time most is spent simply waiting, spoon in hand, forlornly looking at flight prices. I've made a few other tweaks, more herbs and chillies, less salt to account for the salt beef. The broth freezes for up to 2 months accordingly to Mr Nguyen.

To serve 8 (or 1, repeatedly, several days in a row)

2kg raw rolled salt brisket
3 big raw beef bones
1 unpeeled bulb garlic
4 unpeeled onions
large piece unpeeled ginger
150ml fish sauce
2tbsp palm sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
8 whole cloves
5 star anise

To serve;
1.6kg rice noodles
500g raw beef sirloin, sliced into strips
8 spring onions, thinly sliced
4 birds eye chillies, thinly sliced
Big handful chopped coriander
Handful mint
Handful sweet basil
3-4 limes, cut into segments

Soak the brisket in water for 1-2 hours as time allows, refreshing the water a couple of times. On a griddle, dry cook the garlic, onions, and ginger over a medium high heat until the outsides are blackened and in insides are going soft (this will make your flat smell delicious, like your own little ockabasi). Discard the chared skins, and roughly chops the squishy, sweet insides.

Dry fry the spices then bash roughly in a pestle and mortar. You're not looking for a fine powder, just smallish chunks which you can strain out later.

Discard the salty beef water. Fill your largest pot with 6l water, and slowly bring the beef bone and brisket to the boil, skimming the water for 25 minutes to ensure a clear stock. You may have to divide the water and bones between two pots to begin with, reuniting the liquid once it starts to reduce. Lower the heat to give a very gentle simmer, and add the garlic, onions, ginger, spices, fish sauce and sugar. Go off and potter, leaving it the simmer very gently for 3 hours. Remove the brisket and strain the stock through muslin, discarding the bones and other ingredients.

To serve, cook the rice noodles as per the pack instructions, and divide the cooked noodles and raw beef sirloin by the 8 bowls. Slice the salt beef and chuck into the bowls as well, discarding any particularly fatty bits. Put the herbs, chillies, and limes onto a plate and place in the middle of the table. Ladle the stock over the beefy bits and noodles and serve, allowing people to add the botanicals as they feel necessary. Make sure you get plenty of slurping in, it's one of the few times it's truly acceptable.


  1. Loving the East meets East End. A place called Fatty Cue in Brooklyn seems to be combining their traditional BBQ meets with Eastern dishes - noodle soups, steamed buns etc. - to good effect too.

    From my experience London's Vietnamese restaurants are a pretty poor representation of real Vietnamese food. A month over there last year has left me struggling to find a Vietnamese place over here I rate and, before I had the real thing, I used to rate most of them.

  2. Ooooh no! Well, at least that gives me something to look forward to. Is there anywhere you'd rate above the others in London?

    Songs of Sapa has lots of recipes combining charred/grilled meat and soups/salads/noodles. Can't wait to try them out, though being the only meat eater it can be tricky.

  3. I love that cook book, should really cook more from it. The charred meats and rice/noodle combinations were some of my favourites whilst travelling there too.

    Viet Grill still impresses me (so guessing Cay Tre would too), and I love the banh mi from banh mi 11 on Broadway Market. City Caphe by Bank also turns out a nice baguette and pho for a quick lunch time bite, they also do chargrilled pork with rice pretty well.

    Rumour has it Cafe East in Surrey Keys has the local taste nailed but I've yet to try it. No excuse now really when it's about 15 minutes from Dalston on the East London Line.

  4. Again, your food looks fantastic Swifty. Brilliant. Must come and eat with you when we next can.

  5. Joshua - have you found some funny discrepancies in the book? For example, recipes which say "add the x ingredient" without it actually being listed? Still, a beautifully produced book. So handy for the dressings and store cupboard bits in the back. If you need a dining companion for Surrey Keys, count me in!

    Rich - sort it ouuut and bring your lovely lady/band to the shed :-)