Pho for the Soul

20 November 2016

From supper club to hawker, meet the Vietnamese home chef behind SS2’s latest beef noodle stall.
Like how Malaysia is synonymous with nasi lemak, pho (pronounced as fuh) is considered the national dish of Vietnam and easily one of its most identifiable staples. Turn around any corner in Vietnam and you’re bound to find a restaurant or street side stall selling this simple but classic Vietnamese dish.

Being in Malaysia where food captures the heart of the nation, it is of no surprise that Vietnamese fare has steadily increased its presence here in recent years. There are many restaurants like Ăn Viet, Pho Vietz and Phở Hoà that have captured a loyal customer following, but sometimes one can’t help but feel that maybe the flavours have been Malaysianised to pander to the crowds.

So where does one go in search of a fuss-free and authentic bowl of pho in Malaysia?

The search led to a nondescript hawker stall in SS2’s newly opened Chow Yang Kopitiam. Pho King’s dark green sign has the words Vietnamese Street Food proudly emblazoned across it, and stands out among the usual array of local fare in a Chinese kopitiam. The stall is manned by Vietnamese-born Hoa, who is married to Teoh, a Malaysian. On weekdays, Hoa is assisted by a helper while her husband helps out on weekends.

This is not their first foray into the food business. The husband and wife team has been running a supper club called Cute Ball Kitchen from their home since 2014. Frustrated at not being able to find authentic and wholesome Vietnamese food after settling back in Malaysia, the couple decided to try their hand at cooking their own and experimented with the supper club concept to keep their overheads low.

Wanting to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to a new customer base without investing too heavily on a place, Hoa and Teoh started Pho King in August this year. The new venue provides their customers a more affordable and easy alternative to Vietnamese food without going through the hassle of making advance bookings. Additionally, this allowed the couple flexibility when managing the stall hours as they are still running Cute Ball Kitchen on the side.

One cannot have Vietnamese food without having pho and Pho King takes our idea of hawker food to another level. A steaming bowl of savoury, light beef noodle soup can instantly turn your day around, especially in rainy weather. Hoa’s version does just that and is the result of many hours of meticulous preparation using top quality ingredients that she sources locally and from abroad. Aside from its star dish, Pho King also serves Vietnamese favourites bánh mì and bún chả.

At RM12 for a bowl of pho, Pho King’s dishes are slightly more expensive than the other nearby stalls, but Hoa explains that this is because she doesn’t compromise on ingredients. “We’ve been doing supper clubs for quite a long time. We understand that the ingredients are very important for the food, especially Vietnamese food.”

And Hoa takes her ingredients seriously. She uses Australian beef from Lucky Frozen because she feels the marbling is better than local beef, while pork is sourced locally from Sanbanto. Both suppliers are well known for their premium quality meats. Hoa explains, “For Vietnamese food, we don’t use a lot of spices like Malaysian food or Indian food. Normally we use very little, we emphasise on natural flavour. So we have to use very good ingredients.”

Pho King’s pho is a bowl of comforting goodness. Despite the limited space and set up, Hoa pays the same kind of attention that she does when she cooks for her supper club. She assembles the noodles patiently, building it layer upon layer. As she warms up the soup, she adds a dash of fish sauce for a more robust flavour. Finally, the soup is ladled upon thin slices of raw beef set atop a mound of rice noodles. The hot soup cooks the meat instantly, resulting in delicate pieces of melt-in-your-mouth beef.

Each element of pho complements the other; there are no overpowering flavours. “When you taste this, you will feel the sweet broth. After that you will taste a little hint of spices, everything is balanced,” describes Hoa. According to her, in Vietnam, it’s common to heat up the bowl so that the pho stays warm to the last drop.

Pho traditionally doesn’t vary much across Vietnam but there are still slight differences that set the dish apart from the northern and southern regions. Hoa, who is from the north, classifies pho as either cooked “Hanoi or Saigon style”. The north prefers less flavouring in their food, resulting in taste that could be quite bland at times. However, those residing in the south or central Vietnam prefer flavours that are more sweet, salty or spicy. Hoa’s pho follows the northern cooking style but with slightly more flavour added to it.

Another interesting point is the seemingly common addition of beansprouts and basil to pho, which Hoa reveals is actually pretty unusual back home, as adding these ingredients can destroy the delicate flavours of the broth.

Hoa’s first interest was in baking, something that she still does when she creates the menu for her supper club. Like most chefs, some of Hoa’s recipes are from her mother but she’ll try to cook and modify new recipes herself. Laughingly, Hoa says that her husband Teoh is usually her toughest critic, having her test out the recipes until they’re perfect.

As for Pho King’s future, Hoa has no plans to expand until they have built a solid base for their brand. In fact, she and Teoh are keeping the opening of Pho King as low-key as possible without informing any of the customers from their supper club so that the food could stand on its own without any bias or expectations from their regular guests.

The price is also no deterrent, as many new customers have become regulars since Pho King started – a fact which Hoa believes is testament to their food quality.

“I don’t like to serve food without perfection,” says Hoa. “For me, as a chef, I don’t want to know how to cook everything, but nothing is good.”

Find them at Pho King, SS2 Chow Yang Kopitiam, 44-48, Jalan SS2/10, 47300 Petaling Jaya.

By Lyn Ong

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