Vietnamese Pho with Fish Balls

I used to have a serious issue with Shoreditch, and North London in general. This issue stemmed from my time living in Angel in a five bedroom house that should’ve really been advertised as a five bedroom septic tank.

I don’t know anybody that has enjoyed the house-hunting process in London. It is especially de-moralising for a second year fresh-faced student who has had the convenience of student halls and the comforts of mummy-daddy’s home previously. You’re suddenly slapped in the face with the reality of what you can actually afford, like a big fat stinking fish, once you’ve budgeted in 2-4-1 beers at the sports pub, strongbow cider and meatball marinara Subways.

After viewing at least seven or eight dumps all over London we were so frazzled that we settled on a house in Angel with three bedrooms, two matchbox rooms, a damp problem, mouldy walls, a malfunctioning toilet which flooded the floor with sewage water, a leaking gas oven and a broken shower. Of course, you only find out about the damp and sewage issue after you move in and try to figure out why your new pad smells like stale turds.

We made the most of our bad situation by frequenting Upper Street’s usual chain restaurants such as Pizza Express and Masala Zone, a couple of good places such as Cuba Libre and King’s Head, and a myriad of dives such as Le Mercury, Walkabout and Pitcher & Piano. At the time being crushed amongst sweaty North Londoners with questionable personal hygiene seemed like a better deal than spending the night in our cesspit of a home.

However, after being spoiled by Mayfair and West London’s charm over the past few years I dreaded the thought of having to socialise in North London where on one side, in Angel, you’ve got the hackneyed chain establishments with A-level students and builders rubbing shoulders, while on the other side, in Shoreditch, you’ve got the try-hard-to-be-trendy hotspots around Hoxton Square with media types wearing tutus or skinny jeans with back-combed mullets blowing air kisses to each other.

Over the past year a bunch of my friends and colleagues have moved into North London. Not quite understanding their motivation initially, I begrudgingly visited their homes and have been surprised by how much of a facelift the area has gotten since my time in Angel. Yes, you’ve still got the A-levelers and TfL staff in Angel, and the mullets in Shoreditch, but now there are a bunch of fun places such as Callooh Callay, a Lewis Carroll themed cocktail bar (unimpressive, overpriced cocktails but worth going just to check out the drinks served in gramophones), The Breakfast Club and cheap-as-chips Viet Grill.

The Viet Grill serves up giant-sized steaming bowls of Vietnamese pho, a light broth with meat/tofu/seafood and rice noodles. They also offer bargain meals for a fiver before 3pm. Being so impressed by the light flavours of the noodle soups, I am now hooked and hopelessly in love with pho and had to recreate the magic at home.

Although my broth was wonderfully fresh-fragranced and flavoursome, my fish balls were a disaster. Not being a massive fan of garlic, I blindly followed a recipe that called for four cloves. Everything was wrong with it – the consistency was awkwardly gloopy, the look was more “scraps of flesh” than “balls”, the taste was a fishy-garlicy mess. The only good thing that came out of this was that my dinner was limited to flavoured water and rice noodles which helps me with my “lose five pounds before best friend’s wedding” challenge. And that North London is now in my good books.

Vietnamese Pho with Fish Balls Recipe (adapted from Merrilees Parker’s recipe)

For the pho broth
1½ litres veggie stock
2cm piece fresh ginger, grated
2 garlic cloves, grated
2 star anise (original calls for 4. I’m never making the mistake of giving star anise that much power ever again after the spicy ketchup escapade)
4 kaffir lime leaves
3 peppercorns
1 red chilli, roughly chopped
150g vermicelli rice noodles
2 tbsp fish sauce
4 spring onions, finely sliced
75g bean sprouts
handful coriander leaves
1 lime, cut into wedges

1. Pour the stock into a large heavy-based saucepan and add the ginger, garlic, star anise, kaffir lime leaves, peppercorns and the chillies to the stock.
2. Heat the stock to a gentle simmer and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Place the noodles in a bowl. Pour boiling water over the noodles and leave to stand for ten minutes (or cook according to packet instructions). Drain and set aside.
4. Strain the stock to remove bits and return the strained liquid to the pan adding the fish sauce.
5. To serve, warm four deep bowls and divide the noodles among them. Pour over the broth and garnish with spring onions, bean sprouts, coriander leaves and lime wedges.

Fish Balls (adapted from Appon’s Thai Food)

250g white fish (I used Haddock)
2 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
4 garlic cloves (ughh)
2 tbsp chopped spring onions (I left these out for no good reason. They may have negated the overtly garlic flavour)
2 tbsp Cassava Starch (I used corn flour as I figured the strach was meant to be a binding agent)
50g crushed ice (possibly guilty of making the mixture soggy and gloopy)
2 tsp thai green curry paste (my addition. didn’t do jack)

1. Put the fish meat into the blender with the garlic, salt, pepper, spring onions, green curry paste and cassava starch. Blitz till smooth.
2. Put a pan of water onto boil, and a bowl of cold water next to it.
3. Add the crushed ice to the blender and blend it into the mixture.
4. Using two teaspoons, scoop out spoonfuls of the fish mixture and shape into balls, then drop them into the boiling water. (Warning: be extremely careful as you may end up with garlicy-fish mixture all over your kitchen and the stench is hard to get rid off)
5. Cook for 1 minute, the ball will float to the surface. (1 minute wasn’t enough for my fish balls as they were massively undercooked inside. I stuck them back in for 5 more minutes, until they were cooked through. Shame they tasted like a gutter)
6. Scoop out the balls and drop into the cold water to cool quickly.
7. If you want to freeze them, keep them separate on a tray until frozen, then transfer them to a freezer bag.

2 Responses to “Vietnamese Pho with Fish Balls”
  1. Sangeetha says:

    I couldnt stop thinking of pho ever since u cooked it so I went for some for dinner tonigh with cherith. tried the seafood one, definately not as good as the chicken one i had b4. i think maybe if its only scallops and shrimp, and they r soaked really well in with the soup it might taste better.

    told u i post something to make you look cool.

  2. Shmii says:

    Thanks for making me look cool! you are the mother of all kewlness.

    Dude, fish/crab balls are really good. It’s just my attempt that was abominal.

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