Bun Cha – Vietnam’s culinary jewel

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On a recent trip to Vietnam Mr B, Big A and Little Z (husband and two daughters) stopped off in Hanoi for a couple of days before heading south to Hoi An and it was during this stay I discovered a dish known as Bun Cha (pronounced Boon Cha – even the name of it appeals) that will stay with me forever. There have been certain times in my life that I have, often unexpectedly, had a meal that was off the delicious charts and consequently imprinted on my memory. This was one of them.

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We had booked ourselves onto a guided tour of ‘real’ Hanoi with Hanoi Kids – which I cannot recommend more highly if you are planning a visit. The personal tours are conducted by local university students who show you their beloved Hanoi. The hope is that the students can improve their English and you enjoy an original type of tour. The tours are free so it’s a win win for everyone, although it’s only polite to pay for their lunch and drinks and leave a tip at the end (although there is no pressure to leave one).

Van and Nhung (our designated Hanoi Kids for the day) collected us from our hotel in Old Hanoi and after a few minutes discussion on what kind of things we enjoy doing they whisked us off to a few places they thought we should see, both on the tourist trail and the more hidden places.

Despite the tourists who flock to ‘The Temple of Literature’, the site of Vietnam’s first university, the place was breathtakingly calm and serene as recently graduated students wafted around in their stunning ‘ao dai’ – the national dress for Vietnamese women.

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The temple is a place for them to take cherished photographs of themselves in all their finery having completed their studies; their graduation photographs if you will.

IMG_4799We wandered around the large complex taking in our surroundings before heading back to the cool of our transportation and on to the next destination.

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After a morning of soaking up the some of Hanoi’s sites Van and Nhung promised to take us to one of their favourite Bun Cha establishments. New to Bun Cha we were open to their suggestion. Our driver dropped us off by the pavement where we found a collection of little tables with miniature blue stools where local Vietnamese were feasting on Bun Cha.

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We were shown to a table and waited briefly for our meal to arrive. A large tin platter was placed on the small table, which we were huddled around and upon it were six bowls of broth filled with BBQ pork slices and patties. In the middle of the platter where mountainous piles of noodles, fresh herbs, lettuce and bamboo shoots.

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The simplicity of the spread did not reveal the resplendent flavours that came to the fore after the first mouthful. Without exception we were all in culinary nirvana; even Little Z who has not such a developed palate – being 3 yrs old – devoured every mouthful. The atmosphere of eating in a local eatery with traffic and bikes whizzing by only added to the charm. All the tables were filled with locals, not a tourist in sight (apart from us that is).

At £2 a head it is without doubt the best cheapest meal I have ever eaten. If you are in Hanoi do check it out you won’t be disappointed. The address is : Bún Chả 34 Hàng Than, 34 Hàng Than, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi.

The afternoon was spent on foot touring the streets of Old Hanoi,which is no easy feet I tell you. Crossing a road in Hanoi is a tricky business, but with our guides on hand we managed to stay alive to tell the tale.

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Some like to take a more leisured approach to daily life!!

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We ambled around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is the heart of Hanoi. Within the frenetic metropolis the lake offers peaceful walks in the relative shade of the tree lined walkways. We visited the temple in the lake and heard about the legend of the giant tortoise and the sword.

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The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering down the laberinth of narrow roads that make up Old hanoi, stopping off at temples and markets and of course sampling the famous egg coffee at Cafe Giang, a coffeehouse that’s been around for decades. (39 Nguyen Huu Haan) and is delightfully charming hidden down a dark little alleyway (we would never have found it without Hanoi Kids), over two floors scatted with it’s miniature tables and wooden stools, much to Mr B’s chagrin, as he is a good six foot tall. The girls loved it however as the seating arrangements in Hanoi were perfect for them.

So for those who have no immediate trips to Hanoi planned, fear not, here is the simple but truly delicious Bun Cha recipe that you can make at home. Don’t be put off by the length of ingredients, it is far more straightforward than it may appear and if you don’t have all the herbs just use one or two of those listed. Equally if you find green papaya too hard to source just add carrot. Ideally marinate the pork mince and slices and leave in the fridge overnight if you have time/remember. Failing that a couple of hours marinating will also be sufficient.

Bun Cha

Serves 4

Pork Patties and Slices

300g pork shoulder

300g pork mince

6 shallots, minced

6 garlic cloves, minced

2 spring onions, very finely chopped

1 tsp sugar

2 tsp fish sauce

2 tsp dark soy sauce

2 tsp salt

2 tsp honey

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

To Serve

1 handful of mint leaves

1 handful of coriander leaves

1 handful of Thai Basil

1 large handful of bean sprouts

1 large handful of lettuce leaves

500g rice vermicelli noodles, cooked

Side of Pickles

quarter of a green papaya, thinly sliced

1 large carrot, sliced into carrot flowers (or simply sliced)

2 tsp salt

1 tbsp caster sugar

2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

Dipping Sauce

2 tbsp fish sauce

2 tbsp caster sugar

2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

250 ml water

1 chilli, sliced thinly

2 garlic cloves, diced finely

juice of half a lime

1. In a mixing bowl combine the pork mince with HALF of all the ingredients in the ‘Pork Patties and Slices’ section. Thinly slice the pork shoulder to around 1/2 cm depth, 5cm length x 4cm width approximately. Place in a separate bowl with the other HALF of the remaining ingredients.  Cover both bowls and leave in the fridge to marinate overnight or for a couple of hours.

2. Next prepare the side of pickles by slicing the carrots, or if you are feeling ambitious make little carrot flowers. Simply peel the carrots and then make V cuts lengthways, without going all the way through the carrot. This way when you slice the carrot horizontally little carrot flowers have been formed. Peel and slice the green papaya and then put both the vegetables into a bowl with the salt. Set aside for 10 minutes before rinsing off the salt in water. Drain thoroughly and then place in a new bowl with the sugar and the rice vinegar. Leave to rest for an hour. This will allow the vegetables to absorb the sugary vinegar flavour.

3. Prepare the dipping sauce by mixing all the ingredients together. Leave to one side.

4. Cook the rice vermicelli according to the packet – few minutes normally in boiling water. Drain under cold water and leave to one side.

5. After marinating the pork, make small patties using your hands, similar to how you would make meatballs. It is easiest to form the balls if your hands have a little oil on them. Once you have formed a ball, gently flatten the pattie so that it is easier to handle when cooking.

6. If you want to be really authentic then you could BBQ the meats but as it is not always BBQ weather here in the UK, I find the oven grill works equally well. Preheat the oven grill to 180 degrees (I use fan oven). Place the slices and patties on the grill rack and grill for just under 10 minutes (or until nicely turned brown) before turning and grilling for a further 10 minutes.

To serve: 

It’s a great dish for people to help themselves so place the herbs/lettuce/bean sprouts, dipping sauce, side of pickles and noodles in separate bowls. To heat up the noodles simple pour boiling water over them and drain them thoroughly! Then place the meat on a separate plate. Ideally serve in small little round bowls like those served in Hanoi (see photo above). My bowls are a little too large really so aim for a small bowl if possible. Guests pour a little dipping sauce in their bowl followed by a couple of slices of pork and a couple of pork patties and  pickles. Then you dip a bit of vermicelli and fresh herbs/lettuce/bean sprouts into the bowl and then eat. The flavours and textures will sing to you and you will be finishing off bowls of the dish before you know it. If you run out of dipping sauce it is easy to prepare a fresh batch. Both my hosts in Hanoi did not finish off the sauce as it is sweet, although I couldn’t resist finishing off every last mouthful.


Cau Lau – Hoi An Special Noodles with Marinated Pork

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This Vietnamese pork and noodle dish is wonderfully fragrant and tasty and very straightforward to put together. It is known as Cau Lau in Vietnam and is a speciality of the world heritage town of Hoi An. Cau Lau is a noodle that is made from rice and water – nothing new there I hear you say – but wait – the water is supposedly from a well in Hoi An. Into the collected well water the locals place the ash of the La Gai Leaf, which they burn. The water and ash are then left over night to rest and then it is this water that is then used to make the noodles, which gives them a light brown hue. As they are tricky to come by in London, I have replaced them with the rice ribbon noodles, but frankly you can use whichever noodle you have to hand.

So this is what you need:

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The only ingredient absent from this photo is ‘sweet basil’, which I managed to source before devouring the meal. It is not a absolutely necessary but definitely adds a delicate fragrant flavour if you are able to get hold of some.

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Place the chilli, turmeric, garlic and lemongrass into a mortar, as above and give it a good grind with your pestle. If you don’t have one simply use a bowl and the end of a rolling pin, works wonders!

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Then add the honey, soy sauce, five spice powder, salt and pepper to taste and you will end up with a marinade to pour over your pork loin.

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Keep the fat on the pork loin and cut into 6 pieces. Using your hands cover and mix the marinade over all the pieces and then leave the meat to marinade in your fridge for ideally a few hours or even overnight if you can.

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In a large, slightly deep, pan pour in some oil and bronze each piece of pork on both sides.

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Then add the marinade along with enough water to just cover the pork. Simmer and cover for around 45 minutes, by which time the pork will be tender and the sauce will have reduced by around half.

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Before serving remove the fat from the pork and discard and finely slice the pork. Follow the instructions for the noodles. For ribbon rice noodles I simmered them for around 5-7 minutes in boiling water and then strained them and ran them under cold water for a second. Whilst the rice noodles are cooking place a little oil in a pan and when it is hot add a handful of uncooked shrimp chips for 10 seconds, by which time they will puff up and curl.

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When serving place a good helping of noodles into a bowl followed by the sliced pork loin on top. Ladle a generous spoonful or two of the remaining marinade/sauce on top followed by a small handful of bean sprouts, coriander and sweet basil on the side. Lastly add the shrimp chips and a slice of lime. Serve hot and enjoy.

Cau Lau- Hoi An Special Noodles with Marinated Pork

Adapted from The Green Bamboo Cooking School recipe in Hoi An

serves 4

800g pork loin, cut into 6 pieces

small handful of bean sprouts per serving

small handful of uncooked prawn chips per serving

small handful of fresh coriander and sweet basil per serving

 1 packet of white rice ribbon noodles (see photo)

1 lime, quartered

Marinade

5 pieces of garlic, finely sliced

1 tsp ground turmeric

 2 lemongrass, finely chopped

2 chillies, finely chopped (remove seeds if you prefer less of a kick!)

2 tbsp of five spice powder

5 tbsp light soy sauce

2 tbsp honey

salt and pepper to taste

1. Using a pestle and mortar, or bowl and end of a rolling pin, crush the lemongrass, chilli, garlic and turmeric for a few minutes. Once the ingredients have broken down add the five spice powder, soy sauce and honey.

2. Place the pieces of pork loin (with fat on) in a bowl and cover with the marinade using your hands. Place cling film over the bowl and place in the fridge for at least an hour – you could leave over night if you have time.

3. Using a fairly deep pan, heat up a little oil and bronze both sides of the pork loin. Then pour in the marinade and add enough water to the pan so that the pork loins are just covered. Simmer for 45 minutes at which point the sauce will have reduced by almost a half and the pork loin will be tender.

4. When the pork is cooking, in a separate pan add some oil and when it is hot place a small handful of uncooked shrimp chips into the oil and cook for 10-15 seconds, by which time the chips will have puffed up and lightened in colour. They burn really quickly so don’t take your eyes off them during this part. Place to one side on some kitchen roll. Repeat until you have enough to put a few on each serving.

5. Heat up some boiling water and add the rice noodles for the time specified on the packet – which is usually around 5-7 minutes. Strain and run under a cold tap briefly and separate into each bowl.

6. Using a spatula take the pork loin out of the sauce, remove the fat and slice thinly. Place the pork slices onto the noodles and add a ladle of the sauce on top of the pork and noodles. Add a small handful of bean sprouts, coriander, sweet basil and shrimp chips to the bowl along with a wedge of fresh lime.


Won over by Vietnamese Iced Coffee

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This week has been SPECTACULAR on the weather front. London has been basking in the sunshine and everyone has had a spring in their step. Overcoats and leather boots have been put away (temporarily of course!) and spring/summer clothing have made an appearance. Everyone seems happy, even the flowers in the garden seem relieved that the cold spell may well and truly be behind us.

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The weather was so bright and warm that one evening, Big A, Little Z, my ma and sister all sat outside for our Vietnamese starter of fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. I taught the home team how to roll their own rolls and then they made their own, which was a great experience, especially as we were all seated on the lawn out the back of my house. I will do a blog post on making these in due course!

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Since my recent trip to Vietnam I have returned home a new women, in the sense that I have found a coffee that I don’t mind sipping, and may well go as far as saying I rather like. Granted it is probably because of the condensed milk, but hey ho, it’s a coffee beverage that I find pleasurable to drink.  I know I am probably in the minority who is not a coffee drinker, but with Vietnamese coffee I make an exception. Whilst it is delicious hot, I decided to make some iced coffee to sip in the warm weather.

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I picked up one of these rather handy stainless steel coffee filters in Vietnam, but they are easy and reasonable to source on line here. Whilst they are easy to use and do not take up any space in the cupboard, I did find the filter let some coffee grains through, which didn’t particularly bother me, but if anyone knows a way to stop this I would love to hear. Just leave a comment below.

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As for the coffee itself I picked up the variety above from Vietnam  and it smells and tastes divine. Again it is easy to source in the UK or from Europe for that matter from this online site and I am sure there are similar sites in your country of origin too. The coffee comes in varying strengths, but since I am a newby to the coffee scene I went for the weakest.

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Creamy and oh so decadent, this iced coffee was perfect for a hot day. Part of the fun is the ritual in preparing it and I especially love the way the coffee initially sits on top of the condescend milk until the point of giving it a good stir.

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Vietnamese Iced Coffee

1 cup

1 Vietnamese filter 

1 tbsp of ground Vietnamese coffee (or 2 tbsp if you prefer it stronger)

1 large tbsp of condensed milk

boiling water (to fill the glass/cup)

iced cubes

1. Place the condensed milk in the bottom of your glass/cup.

2. Removing the internal filter from your Vietnamese filter cup, add a spoonful of finely ground coffee into the bottom of the stainless steel filter cup (more if you like it stronger).

3. Place the filter mechanism (the part to the far left of image 3 here) on top of the blended coffee and add the boiling water to the Vietnamese filter cup and place the filter lid on top.

4. The coffee will gradually trickle through to the condensed milk. Leave it a couple of minutes to allow the coffee to filter through.

5. Once this has happened stir it with a teaspoon so that the coffee becomes a milky brown colour. Add a few ice cubes and stir once again.

If you make your Vietnamese coffee another way I would love to hear your tips and suggestions. Leave a comment below for everyone to see.


Vietnamese Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup and finding the perfect cooking course in Hoi An

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Vietnamese cuisine is to put it simply, ‘heavenly’. After my first bite of a Banh Mi, from Banh Min 11, back in London, not that long ago, I knew that it was going to be a culinary love affair. Since arriving in the motherland it has not disappointed. Each meal we have eaten has been a multitude of delicate, fragrant flavours – spices that sing to you and dance on your tongue.

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Herbs feature heavily in most dishes and add real fragrant lift. I was sufficiently enthused that I am going to attempt to grow some of them back in London – for example Vietnamese mint (which I should have no problems growing!), Vietnamese basil, saw tooth coriander, Vietnamese lemon balm, garlic chives. There is a great explanation of Vietnamese herbs here.

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I was keen to attend a cooking course in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An and so set about researching a course that best suited my needs. I was given a few recommendations, however, I decided that a course run by the very affable Van, who runs ‘Green Bamboo Cooking School’ suited my needs perfectly.

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The course run by Van offered a detailed tour of the fresh food markets, where we picked up our ingredients; convivial fellow pupils; personal touches by Van who runs the course in her own home; unhurried tutoring over seven hours; a generous range of recipes manifesting itself in a memorable group lunch and a souvenir goodie bag to take home. Throw in door to door service as Van kindly ferried us to and from our hotels, and it is no surprise that Trip Advisor has over 210 positive comments for this class with no dissenters.

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I am pleased to say that course surpassed even my high expectations. Van was charming, spoke excellent English and a was a natural teacher. She also converted me to Vietnamese coffee – the condensed milk being the key.

My fellow students were a really lovely bunch of enthusiastic foodies – three Australians, two Norwegians and two Swiss and all of us had huge grins on our faces all day, clearly revelling in the fact that we had chosen such a perfect course. Here are few photos of the day. Scroll down.

I elected to cook the unofficial national dish of Vietnam – pho bo, beef noodle soup (pronounced ‘fur’). You can find pho stalls on most streets in Vietnam, but to cook it well is the tricky part. I was keen to understand how to cook it from scratch and to make that perfect pho broth. First stop was the market to buy the beef, which was as fresh as it gets as the cow had been slaughtered that very morning. We bought the beef fillet and 1kg of beef bones. Normally Van would have bought the spine, but there had been a run on spine bones that morning from a hotel restaurant, which had bought the lot. So instead we had a range of other beef bones and some shin to add to the flavour.

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Back at Van’s house the first trick I learnt was to gently char the skin of some ginger, shallots and garlic over a flame as this would give the broth a deep smokey flavour.

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It takes no more than a couple of minutes on each side.

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I then removed most of the skin of the ginger, using that back of a teaspoon and also the skin from the shallots and garlic, which is very easy at this stage as they virtually pop out.

After properly cleaning the beef bones, place them in a large pan of boiling water so as to get rid of any scum from the bones before cooking. Submerge them in boiling water for under a minute and then place them into a second large saucepan, which has also has boiling water in it. Discard the water from the first saucepan. You then need to add the charred ginger, garlic and shallots

Continue to add the following ingredients to the pan: 2 chillies, stick of cinnamon, 1 large white onion, 5 star anise, 5 Chinese apples. I had not come across Chinese apples before, but they tasted delicious. As they may be difficult to source for some people, dates work equally well. Add some sugar and salt and if you fancy, some beef stock as well (I decided to omit the beef stock, to see how it would taste in its natural state).

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Place a lid on the top and leave to boil away gently for a further 2 to 3 hours. Add more seasoning to taste and beef stock if necessary.

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Meanwhile, very finely slice the beef fillet and leave in the fridge until ready to use.

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Before serving have individual bowls of bean sprouts and fresh pho noodles/rice noodles, (the noodles you have submerged into boiling water for 30 seconds and drained) at the ready. In a large ladle add a little of the raw beef and submerge it into the pho broth so that the broth fills the ladle. Using a fork or chop sticks, move the beef around in the boiling stock in your ladle for 30 seconds (that magic number) so that it cooks through and ladle it over one of the bowls of noodles that you have prepared.

Add a generous amount of fresh herbs, including Asian basil, coriander, spring onions along with a quarter of a lime and chilli sauce to taste. You can also have a small bowl of soy sauce on the side, should you wish to add a little, as well as some sliced green papaya and fresh sliced chilli.

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I was delighted by the results and despite having eaten a ridiculous amount of the tastiest Vietnamese food, cooked by my fellow foodies, I managed to see off a bowl of my pho bo.

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Eight happy and well fed people were then deposited back to their hotels, along with a goodie bag provided by Van.

I hope that you too will try this tasty version of pho. Watch this space for more Vietnamese recipes over the coming months.

Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup)

Adapted from Van’s recipe, who runs Green Bamboo Cooking School

Serves at least 8

500g fresh pho noodles/rice noodles

300g beef fillet

1 kg beef bones – ideally spine bones or shin

5 litres boiling water

1 tbsp beef stock

******************

5 star anise

1 large stick of cinnamon

1 roasted fresh ginger

5 roasted shallots

1 large roasted bulb of garlic

5 dried Chinese apples/dates

1 whole white onion, peeled

2 red chillies, left whole or chopped in two

2 tsp salt and pepper

1 tbsp raw sugar

**********

50g fresh bean sprouts

50g fresh Asian basil

50g fresh coriander

50g spring onion, finely sliced

2 limes, cut into quarters

green papaya, finely sliced

chilli paste to taste

soy sauce, to taste (optional)

2 fresh chillies, sliced (optional)

1. Wash the beef bones under a tap and then place to one side. Meanwhile bring two large pans of water to the boil. In the first add the beef bones and submerge them for just under a minute and then transfer them to the second saucepan. Discard the water from the first saucepan.

2. Over a gas flame place the garlic, shallots and ginger on a metal grill directly above the flame, allowing them to char/roast. After a couple of minutes turn them over so that both sides are equally charred. Using the back of a teaspoon, peel off a little of the skin of the ginger.

3. Add them to the bones and boiling water, along with the onion, chillies, dried Chinese apples/dates, cinnamon stick and star anise. Add the salt, sugar, pepper and beef stock it you wish and place a lid on the pan and let  it boil gently for 2-3 hours.

4. Meanwhile, very finely slice the beef fillet and return it to the fridge.

5. Before serving, warm the noodles by placing them on a slotted spoon and submerging them in boling water for 30 seconds. Drain and place in individual bowls. Add the bean sprouts to each of the bowls.

6. In a large ladle add a little of the thinly sliced beef fillet and submerge into the pho broth so that the ladle is completely full and the beef is submerged. With a fork or chop sticks move the beef around in the ladle so that it ‘cooks’ through properly.  Pour over the noodles. Please note the pho broth needs to be boiling/bubbling away at this stage so that the beef fillet is cooked properly. 

7. Add the fresh herbs, lime, spring onions, green papaya and chilli paste/soy sauce/fresh chillies to taste.

8. Serve immediately and enjoy piping hot.