Creatures of Habit

We are all creatures of habit. We like stuff a certain way and if that stuff is a little bit different from the last time, we can become a little perturbed.

“Can you please put the [insert sauce here] on the [insert protein here], but not on the [insert vegetables here]?”

God forbid if there’s gravy on the vegetables. I’ve nearly sustained a fork in the groin for getting that wrong.

There are also the burger people, who proceed to dissect the burger, eating each layer individually. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, much to K’s disdain. Mind you, she eats the least favourite thing on her plate first and so on until she gets to her favourite thing on the plate… which is usually the meat.  See? We all do something weird when it comes to our food preferences.

My typical weekday lunch is to grab a sandwich and take it back to my desk to eat it (without deconstructing it). However today I had a few errands to run, so rather than grab something when I got back, I decided to take a few minutes to sit and enjoy something a little more exciting than a ‘sammich’.

Phở is becoming a favourite of mine and is a healthy alternative to most lunch options, as is most Vietnamese cuisine. A good phở can be hard to come across, particularly if the broth is insipid, but a quick check of Vietnamese Restaurants, Melbourne CBD on urbanspoon narrowed it down for me.

Mekong was busy, so that was a good sign. I was quickly ushered to a spare seat next to a guy that looked like a phở junkie from way back. It can be a little weird dining by yourself, but in a place like this where most of the tables are communal, it didn’t really matter. I decided to order the Phở Ga Dac Biet, also known as Chicken ‘Special’ …

Waiter: [pauses] “Umm… you know…”

Me: “Yes, I know”

Waiter: [excited that the gwai lo / farang / or whatever the Vietnamese vernacular is for a Westerner, is giving Phở Ga Dac Biet a crack]: “OK, cool”

To clarify, the ‘special’ part relates to the special parts of the chicken. You know, most of the bits that repulse most Westerners and are often discarded; namely offal.

For those unfamiliar with phở, origins aside, it’s a clear broth with a specific cut of white rice noodles (called bánh phở’) and is usually served with beef or chicken.

The broth for beef phở is generally made by simmering beef; bones and meat, charred onion (for colour), charred ginger and spices, including cinnamon, star anise, ginger, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed and clove. Chicken phở is made using the same spices as beef phở, but the broth is made using only chicken meat and bones.

Beef phở usually comes with finely cut boiled beef (steak, flank, brisket) or thin slices of raw flank. Tendons, tripe and balls (meatballs, not testicles) can also feature. Chicken phở is served with breast meat and commonly features the giblets, hearts, livers and sometimes an unborn chicken egg, which even I would probably draw the line at.

But the best part of slurping down a steaming bowl of phở are the condiments and whilst I was sitting there waiting for my lunch to arrive, it dawned on me… All of these people around me had their own routine regarding phở. It was brilliant!

Accompanying the phở is a side plate which contains lemon wedges, bean shoots and Vietnamese mint, which you add as much or as little as you like. The table is also crammed full of other delicious condiments; vinegared white onions (hành dấm), fresh green and red chillies, chilli paste, hoisin sauce, fish sauce and a variety of other bottles and jars of flavours, which I’ve yet to discover.

The guy next to me looked as though he was counting the slices of fresh chilli to get the heat ‘just right’, the guy opposite me tore his mint into tiny, teeny pieces and mixed them through his phở for even distribution, then made sure his bean shoots were well immersed into the broth. As for my routine, I’m still finding my true preference, but so far it’s a small squirt of hoisin for a little sweetness, a squeeze of lemon for some acidity, a little chilli paste for some warming base heat and a generous amount of fresh chilli.

Next time, I will spend more of my time people-watching to discover other’s secrets to build the ideal phở.

I will also spend some time observing the secrets as to how not to splatter broth on my shirt as I am far from getting that right.

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