My friend and longtime hairdresser, Kent, was born to Chinese parents who moved to London, and then to Boston. Kent's cousins are successful entrepreneurs who own several Chinatown restaurants and the ever-expanding Super 88 Market mini-chain. His mom worked at "The 88", as we call the original, and largest, of the markets, and sometimes after my haircut we would walk over to visit her.
There's nothing like exploring Asian groceries with someone who speaks the language.
If only Kent cared one bit about cooking.
Me: "Kent, what's this?"
Kent: "How should I know? I don't cook. Mom, what's this?"
Mom (who wasn't comfortable speaking to me in English): "Tell her those are rice noodles. In Vietnamese, banh pho. You soak them in water for a few minutes, to make them soft. Then ....."
I listen to two minutes of what I know is cooking instruction, in rapid and animated Chinese, wishing I could understand her recipe.
Me: "Kent, what did she say?"
Kent: "Uh, she says to soak."
Well, it took me a while to figure out on my own how to cook rice noodles, to get over my fear of tossing something dry-ish into a wok and having it come out flexible and delicious. Kent's mom was right: soaking is the key.
Banh pho — also called rice sticks or chantaboon — are flat noodles that can vary in width from 1 mm (.05 inch) to 1 cm (.4 inch) or wider. When dry, they are white-ish; after soaking, they become pliable; after cooking, they become translucent and very soft.
Made of rice flour and water, banh pho are the noodles used in pho, the ubiquitous Vietnamese soup, and in pad thai, the most popular dish on western Thai restaurant menus. The price varies as widely as the noodle width — though there's no apparent correlation between the two — from $2.99 for 16 ounces to a staggering $4.95 for an 8.5 ounce package. At The 88, I pay $.89 to $1.09 for a 14-ounce package of "best" noodles (I think they actually say "best" on the package, in case you're wondering if I really can tell one rice noodle from another). My local supermarket carries them, in the small Asian foods section, for $1.99.
Soak banh pho in warm tap water for 15-20 minutes. They are nearly flavorless, and will absorb and carry the flavors of anything around them. My favorite way to eat banh pho is with spicy meat noodle sauce, redolent with lots of chili paste with garlic. Try them in soup, with chicken or veggies, in a stir-fry, or in this or that or another of the infinite variations on the theme of pad thai.
An unusual, and unusually easy, version of this classic noodle dish. Serves 6.
1 16-oz package banh pho rice noodles
2 Tbsp peanut or canola oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 whole egg + 2 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1-3/4 cups water
2 cups mung bean sprouts
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts
3-4 scallions (white part only), chopped fine
In a large bowl, soak the noodles in cool water for 30 minutes (put a plate on top to keep the noodles submerged). In a large wok or frying pan, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Stir-fry garlic until it is fragrant, 15-20 seconds. Add the eggs, and stir-fry to scramble. When the eggs are set, add tomato sauce, fish sauce, sugar and water, and stir to combine until the sugar is dissolved. Add noodles, and cook 4-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed. Transfer to a serving bowl, and mix in the bean sprouts, cilantro, red pepper flakes, chopped peanuts and scallions, plus the juice of 1 lime. Stir to combine. Slice the remaining lime and use for garnish.
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