Pho – Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup

I started working as a chef in a hotel that is right next door to the Adelaide Central Markets and China Town.

As a young chef learning their trade, I could not have asked for anything more.  Imagine seeing your states best produce on the walk to work.  Can’t get any more inspiring and educational than that really.  You see the freshest ingredients and also learn about the seasonality of many fresh produce.  You get to talk to vendors and build that ever so important relationship between producers and cooks.

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What can I say about this wonderful, coconutty, spicy broth of goodness?  Teamed with wonderful garnishes such as yellow egg noodle, chicken, prawns, tofu, bean sprouts and plenty of fresh Asian herbs, it’s a heart warmer in winter and so easy to make in large quantities for when the friends drop by or to have for lunch the next day, after all the flavour only gets better the next day.  Make a large batch of the paste and freeze it, in readiness for next time, either way it’s a non-complicated dish loved by every one.

Photo by Jun Pang

For the Paste

What the paste looks like with the rest of the ingredients

250 gr Candle Nuts

8 Large Brown Onions – peeled and quartered

250 gr Garlic – peeled

½ cup Dry Shrimp Paste (Belacan) – wrapped in foil and toasted on dry pan

2 cups Large Dry Chilli – deseeded and reconstituted in warm water

300 gr Galangal – roughly peeled and cut into 2cm pieces

60 gr Fresh Turmeric (or dried) – cut into smaller pieces

For the Broth

10 Cans Coconut Milk

5 litres Chicken Stock

8 Lemon Grass – stems removed and stalks bruised

10 Lime Leaves

500 ml Tamarind Water

100 ml Fish Sauce (Nam Pla)

100 gr Coriander Seeds – toasted and finely ground

For the Garnish

Hokkien Noodle

Bean Sprout

Prawns – cooked & shelled preferably

Fired Tofu Puffs – cut in halves

Chicken Breast – par steamed/boiled and cut or stripped into “chopstick” friendly sizes

Coriander Leaves

Laksa Mint

Thai Basil


  1. “Split” the cans of coconut into cream and milk.  This is better done when the cans have been refrigerated for at least 45 minutes, this separates the “cream”, which floats to the top and solidifies and can be easily extracted with a spoon and the clear “milk” to the bottom, which you reserve for later use.
  2. Heat a large stockpot to high heat.
  3. Place all the ingredients for the paste in a blender and blend to a fine paste.
  4. Place 1 cup of vegetable oil in the pot then immediately followed by the separated coconut “cream” (taking care because it will splatter).
  5. Add the paste to the pot and cook/fry for around 20-25 minutes or until the aromas coming out of the pot are less pungent and take on a more “sweeter” aroma.

This tells us that the natural sugars in the ingredients used are caramelising, taking over from the raw pungent smell. This also indicates correct doneness of the paste.

  1. Add the chicken stock, lemon grass, lime leaves and ground coriander and reduce this by a 1/4.
  2. Add coconut milk and continue reducing to a half
  3. Reduce the heat and add the tamarind water (to balance acidity) and season with fish sauce in replacement of salt.  Add to taste.
  4. For the composition, add as little or as much of the ingredients listed in the garnishes in a deep soup bowl.  Pour hot laksa broth over the contents of the noodles and garnish with fresh coriander leaves, laksa mint and Thai basil leaves.

This recipe makes around 5 litres of laksa, enough to freeze in smaller batches for next time.  Its is also worth noting that the paste can be prepared and frozen for long periods of time, which also makes cooking a delicious meal seem easy.

Photo by Jun Pang

Belacan – is a common ingredient in Asian cooking especially in South East Asia.  Made from tiny little shrimp which has been fermented, dried and formed into little blocks for sale.  It has many names, like ngapi, terasi and in Filipino, it’s called bagoong!  Belecan is dried and to make it a little more falvoursome, you toast it first on a hot surface, usually wrapped in foil to avoid the smell being so bad!

One type of Belacan wrapping

Belacan toasted in foil in a dry pan until change in colour – Warning very smelly

Galangal – is part of the ginger family.  It is woody in texture and you must use a sharp knife to use it.  It has a “pine” smell and flavour.  Used in mostly in curries and sauces, predominantly in In Thai, Vietnamese and in Malaysian cooking.

Candle Nuts – Used mainly in Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine.  High in oils, it is used to thicken sauces/soups.  They are round in colour and are similar to a macadamia nut (as in Australia) and usually used as a substitute for when candle nuts are not available.

Tamarind Water – sold commercially in bottles, it is tamarind pulp soaked in water and the juice squeezed out to get tamarind water.  Usually used to season food to add the tangy, earthy and zesty flavour to a dish.  In this case it helps to soften or cut through the richness in the coconut cream.

Tamarind Water

Fish Sauce – a pungent, fishy smelling golden brown liquid made from fermented fish.  It is used in South East Asian cooking for seasoning or as part of an ingredient in dipping sauces which imparts the umami flavour due to the high glutamate content .  It is known by many different names such as patis (Philippines), nam pla (Thai) and many more, with each Asian country having their own version

One type of fish sauce,  Golden Boy Brand is my favourite to use in curries

Congee – Chicken and Ginger

Filipino’s call it “lugaw” but most people know it as “congee”

It is by far the easiest thing to cook and it was definitely one of the first things I picked just by watching my mum and my grandma cook this dish.  It is a dish that my mum cooks on a cold winter’s day, especially for lunch.  It’s filling, tasty and it warms the body  really quickly.  Traditionally the Chinese have this as a breakfast meal.  As the name translates to rice porridge, it’s usually served plain with condiments like  soy sauce, spring onion, ginger and steamed chicken.  Brilliant way to start the day!

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