I spent some time in Vietnam, back in 2010. At that moment, I had made a carefully thought-out decision to include chicken in my diet, with the intention to enjoy pho, a Vietnamese soup, as the whole process seemed like a culinary ritual worth experiencing. In Vietnam, people gather at sunrise for morning tai chi, an ancient art practiced with the intent to cultivate physical and psychological well being. Shortly after, street stalls and produce markets start popping up on street corners and in alleys. Quickly, streets become packed with people in search for their next meal. I assume that people have strong preferences towards the most delicious vendors. I used this theory as a basis for making my food decisions. As soon as I witnessed a line beginning to form, I took this as my cue to join in.
At each pho stand, a large pot of broth stands tall and sturdy, bubbling with deliciousness. For a pho based entrepreneur, mornings begin at 3 am. The broth needs to boil and absorb flavors from bones and other various animal bits. It boils for at least 4 hours, developing flavors, which is why it's so delicious later on in the day. When you order pho in Vietnam, you'll receive a large bowl of broth, with rice noodles and your choice of meat. You must then be very aggressive when searching for a seat. Table and chairs come in one size: tiny. They are plastic, and in the colors red and blue, which seems to have no particular meaning. If you are 6 feet tall, I can guarantee you will find sitting a particular challenge. The tables will be stocked with peppers, spices and sauces. This is your opportunity to flavor up your pho as you like. I truly fell in love with this whole experience.
Once I returned to North American, I gave up chicken. I had little interest in continuing with it. I did not, however, give up pho. I did my research, and found a few restaurants in Seattle that offer a vegetarian version. If you find yourself in an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, the chances of finding vegetarian pho is pretty slim - true pho stock always contains meet - but some of the more North American-style places seem to offer both meat and veggie stock.
Another Vietnamese dish that I happened to stumble upon in my quest for pho was the vermicelli noodle bowl. It is essentially a large bowl filled with thin delicate vermicelli noodles, tossed with cucumber, carrots, cabbage or lettuce, and the meat of your choice (in my case, tofu). It's lightly seasoned with a tangy sweet sauce, and served with a side of thai basil, sprouts, cilantro, and green onions. If you are lucky, you will be offered a variety of condiments on the table just like in Vietnam, so that you can add a little flare of your own.
Lately, I've been thinking about my travels. Recreating scenes, flavors, moments in my mind. Last week, I saw two tiny plastic chairs on the side walk, and I was overwhelmed with a certain feeling of nostalgia. Some days I just crave the chaos and unpredictability of travel, and today that craving was particularly strong.
VERMICELLI TOFU NOODLE BOWL
notes: If you can't find or don't have access to vermicelli noodles, you could substitute for pad thai noodles (rice sticks). It is important to use regular or sprouted tofu. Silken tofu will be to soft for this dish and likely fall apart.
1 English cucumber, julienned
1 cup carrots, peeled and julienned
2 cups cabbage, sliced
1 package of regular or sprouted firm tofu (10 - 16oz), chopped into thin strips
2 tbsp oil for frying, canola, olive, safflower, vegetable, etc.
1 - 8 oz pack of vermicelli noodles
1/3 cup sweet chili sauce
1/3 cup rice vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
green onion, sliced
Wash and cut the cucumber into thirds. With a mandoline slicer, julienne the cucumber and carrots. Change the attachment and slice the cabbage. Set to the side.
Add the oil to a frying pan and heat on medium. Add the chopped tofu and fry until golden brown. Once cooked, place onto a paper towel to soak up any extra grease.
In a large pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Once boiling, remove from the heat. Break the vermicelli noodles into 5 inch pieces. Add to the water and let sit until soft, roughly 4 minutes. Drain.
In a large bowl, toss the cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, tofu and noodles.
In a small bowl or mason jar, combine the sweet chili sauce and rice vinegar. Drizzle over the salad, and season with salt and pepper. Toss.
Top with chopped peanuts, green onions, cilantro, and lime juice.