Vegetarian ‘Chicken’ Phở

Vegetarian 'chicken' phở noodle soup using Beyond Meat Chicken strips

Boston’s weather these past couple of weeks has deliciously hinted that warm spring days are imminent. Some days the temperature has risen into the low 70Fs bringing everyone out in t-shirts and shorts playing tennis or going for bike rides. But with overnight temperatures suddenly dropping to the low 40Fs, we’re still also bundling up in our winter coats, scarves and hats. This cyclical weather brought a stomach bug into our house and our 6 year old was the first to succumb. In Vietnam, when he regained his appetite after an illness a bowl of chicken phở was what he craved. But now he only eats vegetarian.

When I was searching for vegetarian recipes in Vietnam I came across a lot of fabulous, slurp worthy noodle soups. The vegetarian versions of phở I tasted were all based on the beef version, with warming spices of star anise, cinnamon and cloves, and not the comforting, restorative, ginger-infused chicken phở my son preferred.

Charred shallots and ginger on a gas stove

I like to use a small steel cooling rack, specifically for this purpose, of charring ginger and shallots. It’s also handy for eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.

So I set out to prepare a vegetarian broth reminiscent of what he was used to. As I charred the shallots and ginger on the gas stovetop, to mellow and sweeten their flavors, I pulled out some homemade vegetable stock from the freezer and defrosted it. (If you’re going to use a store bought boxed vegetable stock try to use one that is lighter in color and not the orangey-red hue from too much carrots and tomato. Check out The Kitchn’s taste test of vegetable stocks).

Fish sauce is out, so I used some soy sauce and miso to boost the umami factor in the broth. (A small number of vegetarian cooks I met in Vietnam have started to add a touch of miso to their broths for added depth of flavor). The broth and noodles would satisfy my son’s needs but the healthy family members (though we all eventually caught the bug) were going to be eating the phở as our dinner so I needed to consider the rest of the bowl’s contents.

Living back in North America this year I’ve encountered some products in grocery stores that are new to me. I’ve increasingly become curious with the plant based meat alternatives from Beyond Meat. I’ve been impressed by the lightly seasoned Beyond Chicken strips – particularly their flavor, texture and the way they hold up when they are heated. I had a package in the fridge, as I was planning to stir-fry them with lemongrass and chile for dinner one night, so I decided to use them as the chicken garnish. They shred up nicely and require a brief dunk in boiling water to be reheated before being added to the bowl. If you who don’t eat fake meat analogues, or can’t access them because of where you’re living, I’ve given a variation using tofu skin sticks and oyster mushrooms.

Vegetarian (and vegan) 'chicken' phở with shredded tofu skin and mushrooms

Vegetarian ‘chicken’ phở with shredded tofu skin and mushrooms

The garnishes of bean sprouts, thinly sliced spring onions, and herbs (cilantro, Thai basil and mint) are straightforward but I do love the added rich sweet flavor from fried shallots. If you do attempt to make the fried shallots, and I highly recommend that you do, I suggest you make them first or even the day before. They’re highly addictive – you might have to control yourself from nibbling through them before they reach the soup bowl. If you’re unfamiliar with how to make them and want to give them a go David Tanis has a simple recipe for you to follow. It’s worth frying a ½ pound of sliced shallots (about 5-6 of them) for the 1 cup of oil he suggests. Reserve the fragrant oil to drizzle over salads or even into the phở for an extra fatty mouthfeel.

It’s only been during the last decade that some chicken phở vendors in Hanoi started to add some thinly sliced lime leaf as a garnish. I like how the essential oils in the leaves bring a pleasant citrusy fragrance flavor to the dish. If you buy fresh lime leaves (avoid dried lime leaves as they are flavorless) you’ll have more than you need for this recipe. Store the fresh leaves in a ziploc bag in the freezer, for up to a few months, and pull them out when need for this dish or a favorite Thai dish.

Vegetarian ‘Chicken’ Phở
Serves: 4
For the Broth
3 French shallots or 1 small onion, unpeeled
2 inch (5cm) piece of ginger, unpeeled
7 to 8 cups (1.75 to 2 litres) Light vegetable stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon miso (preferably white (shiro) miso, but red or yellow can also be used)
1 teaspoon salt

½ pound (225 g) dried medium or large flat rice noodles
6 ounces (170 g) Beyond Chicken lightly seasoned strips (4 strips per person), pulled
apart into shreds

⅓ to ½ cup crispy shallots (see headnote for recipe link)
4 scallions, white part cut into 4-inch length then thinly sliced lengthwise; green
part thinly sliced crosswise
A handful cilantro sprigs, thinly sliced
1 or 2 Thai basil sprigs, leaves removed and torn
1 or 2 mint sprigs, leaves removed and torn
2 kaffir lime leaves, rib removed and very thinly sliced
A handful of bean sprouts
1 lime, cut into 6 wedges
1 long red chile or two Thai bird’s eye chilies, thinly sliced
Char the shallots and ginger by placing them on the grate of a gas burner set to medium heat. Let the skin of the shallot and ginger char and then rotate or turn over to let other parts become charred. Do this for about 10 minutes or until the shallots and ginger have softened and most of the surface area is charred. (Alternatively, preheat oven to 425F and place the shallots and ginger on a baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes or until browned and softened).

Set aside the shallots and ginger for about 5 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Peel away and discard any of the burnt shallot skins. Use a spoon or a paring knife to scrape off the charred ginger skin. Rinse the shallots and ginger under running water to loosen and remove any small burnt pieces. Cut the ginger into 3 pieces and using the back of a chef’s knife lightly smash each ginger piece. Place the softened shallots and smashed ginger pieces into a 3 quart (3 litre) pot.

Add the vegetable stock, soy sauce, miso into the same pot and bring to a boil. (Add the mushrooms if you’re making the version with tofu skin). Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cover to let the flavors infuse for about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

In a large bowl of warm water, soak the noodles for about 15 to 20 minutes or until soft and pliable. Also bring a large pot of water to a boil.

While the stock is infusing it’s a good time to prepare and assemble any of the garnishes for the noodle bowls. Mix the sliced cilantro, torn basil and mint leaves in a small bowl. Place sliced scallion in a small bowl or plate. Slice the rest of the garnishes (lime leaves, chilies, lime) and set them all aside.

Uncover the broth and use a slotted spoon or Chinese mesh spider to remove (and discard) the shallots and ginger. Raise the heat so that the broth comes to a simmer. (If using tofu skin and mushroom: Scoop out the mushrooms from the broth and set aside).

Drain the noodles and place a quarter of them and a good pinch (a ¼ of the total) of bean sprouts in the basket of a fine mesh strainer. Dunk in the water and untangle the noodles with tongs or chopsticks and cook for about 15 seconds. Remove the strainer from the pot and quickly shake it to let any excess water drip back into the pot. Place the noodles and bean sprouts in a bowl. Repeat for the other 3 portions.

Add the shredded Beyond Meat ‘chicken’ into the basket of the strainer and dunk it into the water for about 10 seconds to warm through. Remove and divide evenly between the four bowls. (If using tofu skin and mushroom: Divide the reserved mushrooms amongst the four bowls. Add the shredded tofu skin into the basket of the strainer and dunk it into the water for about 10 seconds to heat through and divide the tofu skin evenly between the four bowls).

Sprinkle some shredded lime leaf, scallions and herbs over top. Ladle 1 ¾ cups of broth over the noodles and serve with the chili and lime for diners to adjust the seasoning.
VARIATION: Vegetarian phở with shredded tofu skin sticks and oyster mushrooms

If you’re using the tofu skin sticks soak them either the night before (or before you leave for work) as they take some time to rehydrate (though I’ve also given a ‘quick’ rehydrate method).
Tofu skin sticks are made from the skin that forms on the surface of simmering soymilk. The skin is gently pulled off, crumpled together and hung on a stick or rack to dry. You can buy dried tofu skin sticks at Vietnamese or Chinese grocers. In Vietnam, you’ll find them at stalls at fresh food markets that sell dried pantry items like dried beans, rice paper wrappers and soy or fish sauce.

2 tofu skin sticks
1/4 lb (112 g) oyster mushrooms, torn or cut into bite sized pieces (approximately 2 cups)

To Rehydrate the Tofu Skin Sticks

Long soak method
Eight hours before you plan to eat the soup place the tofu sticks in a casserole dish (snap them, trying to keep them in long lengths, if they’re too long for the dish). Fill the casserole dish with hot tap water. Since the tofu skin sticks will float I’ll use a small mesh rack (you can lay a large stainless steel spoon, or something that won’t float, across them) to keep them immersed. The tofu skin sticks will rehydrate overnight (or put them in the water before leaving for work).

Quick Soak Method
If you’ve forgotten to soak them and need to ‘speed’ up the process, turn your oven on to 200F and add the casserole dish (filled with hot water). (Set the timer on your phone or leave a note near the oven - I sometimes will even tape a piece of paper with the time I should check what's in the oven to the oven door- as a reminder that the tofu skin sticks are in the oven).

I’ve found the constant gentle heat quickens the process of the water penetrating the center of the sticks. They should be ready after about 1 to 1 ½ hours. To fully hydrate the tofu skin sticks they need to be gently hydrated which is why a quick boil, say like boiling pasta, does not work (they lose their shape and become slimy).
The tofu skin sticks are fully hydrated when they have turned a lighter color and when you cut through them there is no dried parts at the core of the stick.

To use them in the soup, cut the sticks into 2-inch (5 cm) lengths and either pull them apart into shreds or cut them 3 or 4 times lengthwise. Discard any parts that are tough (this often tends to be the thin curved part that touched the stick or rack when drying). Place the tofu shreds into a bowl or onto a plate and cover with a damp towel and wrap with plastic wrap so that they don’t dry out.

Dried tofu skin or dried bean curd sticks

Here’s a package of dried tofu skin sticks or as they are also called Dried Bean Curd Sticks.

Dried Bean Curd Sticks Rehydrating or Soaking

Use something like a cooling rack or stainless steel cooking spoon to keep the tofu sticks immersed in the water (instead of floating on the surface)

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