34 posts Posts by becca

Dad’s Pho Bo (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)

I’m not sure when exactly it became cool to eat pho — that iconic Vietnamese dish of thin rice noodles in beef broth perfumed with spices. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to walk down the street without running into a pho restaurant with either a double digit or a bad pun in its name. The pho craze has gotten so big that it’s resulted in pho food trucks, pho sandwiches, instant pho noodles, and specialty pho places that serve it with things like oxtail, filet mignon, ox penis, or — what might even be strangest of all — broccoli and quinoa. :) You can find it at Vegas buffets, at summer camps, school cafeterias, even in rap songs!

Growing up in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, pho was as much a part of my childhood as Kraft macaroni and cheese. But sadly it was often the latter that I requested when friends from school had dinner with us. As an awkward teenager just trying to fit in, I specifically asked my mom one time to make Kraft macaroni and cheese when a friend came over, just to make sure nothing strange would be on the menu that night, like tripe or pigs’ feet. After that time, my mom would automatically get the blue box out whenever a friend stayed for dinner.

When it was just us, though, it wasn’t uncommon for my dad to cook up a pot of pho for a weeknight family dinner, a dinner party with friends, or even for our entire Asian church congregation. In our home, cooking pho was both an elaborate ritual and yet second-nature to us all. It was a two-day affair, and we each knew our roles by heart. In the evening, Dad charred the ginger and onions over an open flame on the stove, filling our home with the sweet, smoky aroma. As the soup cooked overnight, Mom got up from bed every few hours to tend lovingly to the broth, making sure it always stayed at a gentle simmer. The next day, my sister and I washed and picked through all the herbs to make sure every leaf was green and every bean sprout white. And it was my special job to roll the lime under the heel of my foot to make sure it was extra juicy before we washed and cut it into wedges. Then the final, most important job was always Dad’s — tasting and seasoning the broth. He somehow always managed to achieve a balance of flavors that’s been beyond our imitation. It must come from decades of pho-making experience.

When I went to college, I finally met other people who enjoyed trying new foods and happened to love pho just as much as I did. Not only was it okay to like pho, it was maybe even cool. And having a dad who knew how to make it — now that was something to to be proud of. And so for my 20th birthday, I invited all my friends over and asked my dad to make his famous pho for my birthday celebration.


I’ve been lucky enough to have lived close to my parents or, later, in cities where good pho could still be sought out. But that all changed a year and a half ago, when I moved to a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean. While there’s no shortage of things like sugar cane or other tropical fruits here (some of which also grow in Vietnam), I had to resort to bringing my own rice noodles. And I definitely had to start making my own pho.

My sister, on the other hand, has not come by pho so easily in the places she’s lived. Whether it was in the desertlands of Tucson, Arizona, or sub-Siberian Beijing where she lives now, she had long ago prepared for pho emergencies by taking down Dad’s notes. And so it is her recipe and notes that are shared below. And it was this recipe that I followed when I finally simmered my first pot of pho broth earlier this year.

What I’ve found is that my love affair with pho is only deepening as I learn to appreciate the complexity and subtleties of fine pho-making. It’s not until you sit down and learn how to make pho from scratch that you finally understand the whole story of pho. How the smoky sweetness comes from charred onion, the rich mouthfeel of the broth from bones full of marrow and collagen, the clear golden broth color from hours at a bare simmer, and the soft-yet-chewy noodles from flash-boiled, fresh rice noodles.

And when you combine all that with the childhood memories of a mother who’d remember to leave out the scallions and cilantro for a picky eater like me, or a father whose artistic temperament translated into perfectly balanced broth every time, or a family of four who often couldn’t wait for the broth to finish simmering the next day that we’d just drink a bowl of the soup with some meatballs as a midnight snack — well, it’s not hard to understand why I often tell people that if I could have one last meal before I die, I would choose to eat Dad’s pho.

Click through for notes and recipe.

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Jjajangmyeon (자장면 or Noodles in Black Bean Sauce)


I have to confess that I ate my very first bowl of jjajangmyeon (자장면) in Grenada. My Korean friend Terry (remember, she’s the one who likes to make things like tofu, miso, and kimchi from scratch!) invited me over for lunch one day and to my surprise and delight, she presented me with an overflowing bowl of noodles covered in sweet black bean sauce. And of course, there was a side of danmuji (yellow, pickled radish) to go along with it too.

Jjajangmyeon is originally a Chinese noodle dish (zhajiangmian 炸酱面) with regional variations in China. The most widely known is probably the Beijing version, which is made with a salty yellow soybean paste called huangdoujiang or simply huangjiang. In other areas of China, it is also made with doubanjiang (a fermented broad bean sauce common in Sichuan), hoisin sauce, or a sweet bean sauce called tianmianjiang.

When Chinese immigrants first started working in Incheon, Korea, they missed the flavors of home so much that they brought bean paste with them to make Chinese zhajiangmian. The Koreans picked up on this business opportunity quickly and soon began selling their own version of the bean paste, called chunjang, which is made by combining roasted soybean paste with a caramel base. It seems to be most similar to the Chinese tianmianjiang.


I prefer the Korean version of this dish to the Chinese version because I think the sweetness balances out the bitterness of the black beans nicely. To make the Korean version, I use a Korean “Chinese black bean paste” from HMart, with caramel included in its contents. The consistency is a bit more liquid than many other types of bean pastes.

Jjajangmyeon is typically served with wheat noodles, which you can find fresh or dried at Asian grocery stores. If those aren’t available, spaghetti works fine too! The vegetables in this dish can vary based on what’s in season but usually consist of potato cubes, zucchini, and in the Korean version, onions (which add sweetness). In Grenada, I substitute with cabbage because some of the other vegetables are hard to find. Traditionally, pork belly is used because the rendered fat is what is used to “fry” the sauce, but you can also use lean pork and vegetable oil as a healthier alternative. Incidentally, this treatment of the sauce is what gives this dish its name — literally, “fried sauce noodles” in both Korean and Chinese.

Here’s Terry’s basic recipe for jjajangmyeon. The only change I made was to cut the amount of oil in half to make it a bit healthier. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

4 servings

1/2 lb. pork belly (or lean pork)
1/2 cup sweet black bean paste (also known as chunjang in Korean and tianmianjiang in Chinese — look for caramel in the ingredients and a thin consistency)
1/4 c. fat rendered from pork belly and/or vegetable oil
2 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp. oyster sauce
1 large potato
1 onion
1/3 head of cabbage (about 1 c. chopped), or substitute zucchini or daikon
2 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp. corn starch
1/4 cup water
1 16 oz. pack of wheat or spaghetti noodles
cucumber matchsticks for garnish

1. Dice the pork belly, potatoes, onions, and cabbage (or zuchhini or daikon) into 1/2″ cubes.

2. In a large wok, fry the pork belly with 2 Tbsp. of vegetable oil until the pork is cooked and crispy.

3. Separate the pork belly and the fat/oil.

4. Add vegetable oil to the rendered pork fat until you have 1/4 cup. Put back into the wok.

5. Pour the black bean paste into the oil and fry for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly.

6. Meanwhile, start boiling water for your noodles. Prepare according to the package directions. Noodles can be a little softer than al dente for jjajangmyeon. Drain noodles when done and set aside.

7. After about 10 minutes, the sauce should look thinner and smoother. Half of the oil will still be separated from the sauce, but that’s okay. Pour out the sauce and put the excess oil back into the wok.

8. Begin stir-frying the vegetables in the wok with the oil, beginning with the potatoes. Add in the onions and cabbage (or zucchini or daikon) after about 2-3 minutes. Lastly, add in the pork.

9. Pour the fried paste into the vegetable and pork mixture, stir until coated evenly.

10. Add in the chicken stock and bring to a low simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes.

11. After 10 minutes, check to see if the potatoes are cooked. They should be just cooked through and still feel a bit firm.

12. Add in the corn starch, dissolved in water. Stir the sauce until thickened.

13. Season with additional salt and sugar as needed.

14. Serve over bed of noodles. Garnish with cucumber matchsticks. Enjoy!



I love you as much as…

Happy Valentine’s Day! This year, I took inspiration from our blog name and created a set of printable food-inspired Valentines for you to share with your loved ones. Is there someone you just can’t live without? Tell them! :)

Find the download here.

Steamed Land Crabs with Carib Beer

I found these land crabs at the market downtown in St. George’s one day when I was down there buying souvenirs with friends. They were sold by the bunch, about 4-5 to each bunch, still squirming around on the ground. Since these were land crabs, they stayed alive the whole ride home, and even throughout the day. I kept them back on my balcony, just in case. The locals make a Caribbean crab and dumpling curry with the crabs, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the floury dumplings and overwhelming curry flavor, so I decided just to steam them with some local beer. Here’s how to cook and prepare them.

Steamed Land Crabs with Carib Beer
serves 2

4-5 small land crabs
2 bottles beer (Carib or other brand)
1 bunch scallions
5-inch chunk of ginger, sliced thickly

1. Soak the crabs in water to clean them. They are still alive, so be very careful. I kept them tied up so I wouldn’t get pinched.

2. Using tongs, clean off what you can of the crabs. I held the crabs with tongs in one hand while I used chopsticks and a sponge to scrub in the other.

3. Meanwhile, lay the stalks of scallions in the pot after you’ve rinsed them. Lay the slice of ginger down too. Pour the beer over the scallions and ginger.

4. Once it starts to boil, place your crabs in the pot and cover.

5. Let it steam for about 20 minutes. The crabs should be orange when cooked.

6. Take them out of the pot and wait until they are cool enough to handle. At this point, a lot of the legs fell off on their own.

7. Here’s how to remove the back from the body. Notice the triangular flap on the underside of the crab? Pull that up. Wedge your fingers in between the back shell and the body and pull firmly. The body should detach from the back shell, leaving all the goopy, yummy stuff inside.

8. I like to quarter the body to make picking out the meat easier.

Serve with dipping sauce of choice (drawn butter, lemon juice with salt + pepper, or my favorite – a combination of garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, and chili.) Happy cracking!