Circle of life
Vietnamese people move in very small circles. It’s a cliquey community where ex-pats are concerned no matter where they’ve settled.
My first experience of this tight community was many years ago. I hadn’t gone adventuring overseas to an exotic Vietnamese province, or travelled to a bustling city in Vietnam.
No, it was a day trip to Cabramatta in the west of Sydney with a friend who had a fondness for the Vietnamese culture and food.
We arrived, and I swear I thought I’d been drugged and transported to a town in Vietnam. I was absolutely gob-smacked by the things I saw that day. Hundreds of people, mostly Vietnamese, were coming towards us, the streets were flooded with people, you could hardly move. Not an English word or sign to be seen or found.
We seemed to be the only westerners on that day with the exception of a healthy number of ‘junkies’, at regular intervals, slumped, flaccid and crumpled right there on the street in front of us.
This was a long while ago; they’ve cleaned up the drug scene there now (to the public’s view at least), but the Vietnamese culture is as vibrant as ever and the foods are street-style and as cheap as any you’ll find.
We visited a Phở shop just off the street. This heavily stocked soup is one of the favourite dishes of Vietnam and has now become an international favourite and one of mine too.
Phở (pronounced ‘fahr’), the hearty family-sized soup and noodle, is made on the stock of beef bones and filled with love, comfort and a lot of care (see recipe below).
Recently, I went pounding the footpath in Byron Bay to gain some further knowledge of this traditional Vietnamese dish. The local Vietnamese community in Byron itself only consists of around four families.
I know this because I enlisted the help of a Vietnamese local – enter Dao Vo.
Dao was five years old when she moved to Australia from Tây Ninh, a provincial city in southwestern Vietnam. It was at the early age of seven that Dao’s mother Lan decided it was time for her to learn the art of making Phở soup. ‘We don’t get recipes given us, we’re shown how at an early age.
‘I was around seven when my mum – an expert Vietnamese chef in her own right – got me to ride my bike into Footscray (where we lived at the time) to buy ingredients. I was completely on my own with a list of the ingredients I’d need for a traditional Phở.
My mum was relentless in her mission to show me every detail of the process until I had it down pat,’ Dao told me.
‘I grew up with Phở; it was traditional in our family to have a Sunday gathering with the soup, just like an Aussie roast. The only difference was that family members would come at any and all times through the day to enjoy the Phở. Oh… and it’s great for a hangover too,’ Dao added.
Dao has now developed a Vietnamese street-food concept herself called Pink Lotus and along with business partner, Meg Danielson, they have done their first trade at the Uplift Festival recently and are champing at the bit to start their foodie stall at markets and festivals soon.
Getting back to our local adventure, Dao along with her business partner Meg Danielson and I went into Byron on Saturday looking to try a local Vietnamese restaurant Phở.
As three of the four Vietnamese families sell traditional culinary wares, we thought it would be an easy task and, although fun, it wasn’t in the least bit easy. One family owns Lemongrass, in the Lawson Arcade and Noodle Box, on Jonson Street.
Another owns Red Bamboo, in Feros Arcade, and finally another family owns Muoi’s Feast in Fletcher Street. It may seem rude that I haven’t found the names of the families; however, if you’re not Vietnamese, getting any information from these private people can be challenging, as I found out.
Firstly, we tried Red Bamboo, with the intention of a quick Phở. It was 11.30am on Saturday. They had told me though that they’d be open at this time. Nope – doors firmly closed. Off we went for coffee to wait for the opening. Come 12.30pm, still not open. Unperturbed, we crossed the main street over to Lemongrass – it was shut tight (they don’t open for lunch on Saturday). At this point we were all starving and hankering after a Phở.
We sidled over to Muoi’s Feast – it too was closed but Dao heard the sound of Vietnamese voices and followed the voices down to a long table filled with Vietnamese folk eating away. I recognised Mr Hung from the Lemongrass (Muoi’s Feast’s opposition restaurant); he was sitting happily at the end of the table with his wife.
Well, I did say they were a cliquey people, right? And where did the proprietors of Red Bamboo get to on Saturday lunch? The other Vietnamese at the table offered us their excuse: ‘They went off to vote at the Brisbane elections,’ they told Dao in their native tongue.
Of course, we just couldn’t let it go and we all ended up back on Sunday evening at Red Bamboo for an excellent example of Phở (according to our resident expert, Dao). The moral of this story could be the old saying – ‘Good things come Phở those who wait.’
Dao’s Beef Phở
Fresh rice noodles (South Tweed Asian Supplies)
Beef: Brisket / topside 1kg
Beef bones (shin bones cut into smaller wedges)
1 tsp fennel seeds
3 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
7 cardamom pods
1 tsp coriander seeds
Ginger root (size of your palm)
2 large brown onions
1 pkt bean shoots
1 bunch spring onions (small)
2 hot chili (birds-eye)
1 large bunch of basil (Thai)
1 bunch of coriander
¾ of a small bottle of fish sauce
3–4 tablespoon palm sugar (or brown sugar or raw sugar)
Hoi sin sauce (for dipping)
Hot chili sauce (for dipping)
Wash the beef bones thoroughly under cool running water.
Take ginger and char on both sides over gas or under griller.
Place bones and whole peeled onion into a large pot (around 10 litres) and fill with water (don’t overfill). Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 1–3 hours (skimming off any impurities every half-hour or so).
Take a small cheesecloth (size of a bread plate) and place all spices then tie off with string and drop it into simmering soup. Add fish sauce, salt, sugar. Adjust flavour to taste.
To serve lay table with herbs and bean shoots, sauces and chilli.
Fill large pot with water, bring to the boil, add rice noodles and let cook for two minutes, then drain and serve each bowl with portion of the cooked rice noodle.
Take uncooked meat, thinly slice, then add relevant portion to each bowl.
To finish take each bowl and with the broth boiling pour over Phở soup and guests can then garnish with generous handfuls and top with fresh lime.