Asian style soup (my take on Pho) is certainly not Italian.Growing up in an Italian American house in the 1950’s Asian food was completely unknown. The closest association with foods from the orient was the TV commercial for Chun King Chow Mein, where we were invited to try something besides meatball and spaghetti.
I also remember seeing it in the A&P. The two part package intrigued me, but there was also something about those noodles and the shiny chopped vegetables that didn't seem quite right.I also remember the comic song in Roger and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song,” “Shop Suey.” As with so many of Hammerstein's lyrics, the song dealt with a new world that embraced all ethnic varieties.
One From Column A , One From Column B
Chopsticks, c 1970
Much later, when I was in college, we discovered Chinese restaurants. The place of choice was “Chop Sticks,” "Chop Sticks" was on City Avenue in Philadelphia, on the corner of my college's campus. The restaurant was actually “underground.” While their sign was street level, you had to go down a full flight of stairs under the sidewalk to the restaurant.Those were the days when you selected “one from column A” and “one from column B.” Every dinner was prefaced by eggrolls and wanton soup. The entrées arrived under silver covers. (I wish Asian restaurants would restore that practice. The food tends to get cold very fast.) In those days, “sweet and sour chicken” was a most exotic dish. To order the Chinese pancakes with green onions and pork suggested a most sophisticated diner.
The decade of my college years also saw the Southeast Asian wars. One of the positive results of the wars was the arrival of many displaced Vietnamese and Cambodians in America. One of the great benefits is that along with families and children to contribute to the growth of this country, they brought a truly vibrant and exciting cuisine. In Philadelphia, a large contingent of Southeast Asians settled in the area around 9th and Washington, the same neighborhood that was home to the Italian immigrant, my ancestors, of the last century. Within a few years the newly arrived Southeast Asian people had established grocery stores and restaurants. The 19th century Italian American world was now complemented by a new generation from a new yet ancient world.
At the same time, the Korean American community began to flourish. Unlike the Southeast Asian community from Viet Nam and Cambodia, who seemed to settle around the central metropolitan area, the Koreans seemed to invigorate areas on the limits of the city. In my estimation, one of the greatest culinary contributions from the Koreans is “H-Mart.” H-Mart is a spectacular grocery store that provides almost every Asian ingredient and condiment imaginable.Beyond that, every H-Mart has a cornucopia of fresh fish. H-Mart’s fish counter features everything from a simple mackerel to live abalone.
In addition to the fish variety, H-Mart offers any number of prepared kimchis, the quintessential Korean delight of spicy long cured cabbage or radish. If you are going to try an Asian style soup (my take on Pho), H-Mart is the place to start.While Korean kimchi may not be part of Vietnamese pho I see no reason why they cannot be aligned: what we now call “fusion.” Add a bit of the kimchi to the pho.
Along with Korean, Vietnamese restaurants are among my favorites. The dishes are rich with deep interesting flavors.The soups, the “pho,” are simultaneously rich, clean and complex. Philadelphia’s Washington Avenue restaurants and pho bars take the diner into that unknown world that opens to a new experience of taste and delight. I must say that one of my favorites is “Nam Phuong.”
Judging from the number of Asian clients at Nam Phuong, I would guess that I am not too far from sampling something authentic. Of course, the wonders of refines Vietnamese cooking are not always easy to duplicate at home. But why should this stop us? When it comes to soups, even if they are not as refined and subtle as the original, a good soup can still be a comfort and a satisfaction. The recipe that follows is my take in a domestic way to reproduce an idea of what I have enjoyed on Washington Avenue.
My process for an Asian style soup may be a bit complicated in terms of the number of steps but it is actually very simple in the long run.You just need to take time with the meat boil, the noodle prep and the final mix it all together,
Granish with mint, Thai basil and serve
Asian Style Soup (My Take on Pho)