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)

Mulligatawny Soup

Mulligatawny soupMulligatawny soup is perhaps one of the most well known Anglo-Indian dishes that came out of the Raj, the period of the British rule of India. Jennifer Brennan’s culinary memoir, Curries and Bugles: A Cookbook of the British Raj, is a solid account of what the cultural and culinary life was like for the British living in India from the late 19th century up to 1947, the time of Indian Independence.  In it she describes how mulligatawny soup is a derivative of South Indian rasam, a watery broth of lentils, ground spices, made slightly sour with tamarind. Since the soup course is not really part of an Indian meal it was most likely a British memsahib (“housewife”), who wanted to offer a unique soup to their guests, and asked her cook to come up with a solution.  It really is that first South Indian cook, and not the memsahib, who should be credited with the innovative idea of merging his staple daily rasam with vegetables and meat to create a satisfying soup.

As the weather turns colder this is a great soup to have as a light meal. This recipe uses local lamb, from La Ferme Albe, but chicken can also be substituted.  Including diced and blanched potatoes, carrots or turnips as a garnish can make this a more substantial soup.  With only a couple of omissions and additions a vegetarian version is quick and easy to make (see end of recipe).

Mulligatawny Soup
Serves: 4
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil or ghee
  • 1 pound (1/2 kg.) cubed lamb leg or shoulder; or substitute with chicken thighs on bone
  • 1 medium sized onion, finely chopped
  • 16-20 curry leaves
  • 1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, roasted and ground
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, roasted and ground
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon ground cayenne (for mild) or ¾-1 tsp for a kick!
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
  • ¾ cup masoor dal (split red lentils)
  • 6 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
  • 1 (400ml) can of coconut milk
  • 4-6 tbsp tamarind water or to taste
  • Salt and pepper
  • Coriander leaves, for garnish
  • Fried onions, for garnish (optional)
In a medium sized pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Add curry leaves, garlic and ginger and cook for a few minutes. Stir in ground spices, bay leaf and cook for another couple of minutes. Add lamb, salt, pepper and cook until the lamb has changed colour. Toss in tomatoes and red lentils. Cook for another minute then pour in chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface.
Cover and cook over low heat for about 45 minutes or until the lamb pieces are fork tender.

While the lamb is gently simmering, place 1 cup of basmati rice in a small pot. Cover with 1 ½ cups of water and bring to a boil. When it has reached a boil, cover and reduce the heat to low.
Cook for 12 minutes then turn off the heat. Keep the lid on and allow the rice to steam for another 10 minutes.

Remove lamb pieces from the broth and dice or shred. Set aside.

Remove and discard bay leaf and curry leaves (if some remain, no problem).

Place broth in a blender and puree. Return to pot and keep warm over low heat. Pour in the coconut milk. Stir in tamarind water, to taste. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and tamarind.

Ladle some soup into a bowl. Spoon a ⅓ cup of cooked rice in the centre of soup and top with some diced lamb, coriander leaves and crisp fried onions, if using. Accompany with papadums.

Note: If tamarind liquid not available you can substitute with lime juice to taste.
For Vegetarian Version:

Replace lamb with bite sized pieces of mushrooms.

Replace chicken stock with vegetable stock or water.

Reduce cooking/simmering time to 20 minutes.

Remember to remove and set aside mushrooms before pureeing soup.

Other cooked vegetables (ie boiled cauliflower, fried eggplant or stir fried greens) or pulses (such as cooked chickpeas/ or other pulses) can be added at end as a further garnish.

NOTE: This was originally published on my blog India On My Plate on November 15, 2011

A Dal for Fall: Squash Red Lentil Coconut Dal

Squash and Red Lentil DalThe subdued shades of green, so dominant throughout the summer months, in our gardens and at farmer’s markets, are quickly being replaced with fantastic bursts of golden yellow and brilliant orange. Acorn, butternut, crooked neck, hubbard, and kabocha are some of the different squash varieties, which can easily be substituted for each other in your favourite squash recipes.  This creamy textured squash and red lentil dal will guarantee to provide warmth as the autumn chill arrives. Toss in a generous handful of chopped spinach or bitter greens near the end of cooking to add more vegetables to the dish. It is worth searching out fragrant fresh curry leaves, whose aroma will nicely blanket your kitchen, and whose flavour, I promise, you will quickly find addictive!  Serve with rice as a light meal or all on its own as a satisfying soup.

Squash Red Lentil Coconut Dal
Serves: 4
  • 2 ½ cups squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 inch cubes
  • ¾ cup split red lentils (masoor dal)
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • ¼ tsp cayenne or chile powder
  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 cup of canned coconut milk
  • 1 to 1 ½ tsp salt
  • Tempering
  • 2 shallots or 1 small onion, finely sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 branch (8-10 leaves) fresh curry leaves
  • 2 dried red chiles
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tbsp coriander, roughly chopped
Put squash, red lentils, spice powders and water into a medium sized pot. Bring to a boil and skim off scum. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Add salt and check to see that both squash and lentils are cooked. If not, cook for another 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in one cup of canned coconut milk.

Prepare the tempering:
Heat vegetable oil over medium high heat in a small frying pan. Add mustard seeds. When they begin to pop add sliced shallots, curry leaves and dried red chiles. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shallots are light brown and translucent. Add the chopped garlic and cook for a minute. Spoon all of the tempering mixture into the dal. Adjust seasoning, if needed.

Garnish with chopped coriander and serve.

NOTE: This was originally posted on my blog on September 26, 2011