Friday, 24 January 2014

Bitter gourd fish soup, and what I learnt about perfect noodle soups in Hanoi



It's going to be a thing now isn't it? Me apologising at the start of every blog post for being away for too long. (Sorry)

I've been wandering around again. Only a few days back I was shopping for fish heads and live chickens for a supperclub in Hong Kong, and a few days before that, I was avoiding motorbikes in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. I loved both cities, for very different reasons, but I'm going to write a little bit more about Hanoi (and noodle soups) today.

The day starts early in Hanoi, likely with a bowl of roadside pho – flat rice noodles and plenty of herbs in a steaming hot broth made either from boiling chicken or beef bones with spices and aromatics. I am not made for waking up early but you could (and the Vietnamese certainly did) tempt me with a good bowl of noodle soup. When I left for the airport, I had racked up a total of 7 bowls of pho. That's not including other noodley things I had – bun cha, bun ho hue, banh cuon, bun rieu, bun oc... more I cannot name because my knowledge of the local language hardly stretches beyond 'hello', 'thank you' and 'delicious'.



My favourite meal was by this petite old lady with a toothy grin and a makeshift stand that appeared as randomly as it went. The place had no sign and no tables. You grab a stool, point at the bubbling pot beside her, and get a bowl of slippery noodles in a tomato broth, with crab pate, sea snails and fried tofu puffs. Everyone helps themselves to a communal basket of Vietnamese mint, basil, and sawtooth coriander. It was amazing.

I'm now back in Singapore and surprisingly, not at all noodled out. Perhaps it's an Asian thing, but I think I could never tire of rice/ noodles/ a really good broth. I've gone on a bit about making broths before; and is sort of a cheeky hook title, because there is no one perfect way. What goes into that bowl with the broth, and even the people slurping down that broth changes how it is made. For instance, a tonkotsu ramen calls for a long hard boil to emulsify the fat and collagen from the pork bones into one rich creamy broth; while a typical Chinese chicken stock wants to be simmered for a long time, but only barely, so the soup remains light and clear while savoury.



And even then, everybody has their own preference for how intense or oily or clear or salty they want their broth to be. I believe every cook seeking for the 'perfect' ramen/pho/whatever broth is really only seeking for the flavours in that soup he had in his mother's kitchen, or the noodle stall he stumbled upon on a particularly cold and/or shitty day, or that very famous restaurant he visited in Kyoto (the last one a less romantic but probably most likely story). I loved that on every Vietnamese table, there is fish sauce, sugar, chillies, lime and herbs you can help yourself to; or in the absence of tables, there is the option of sending your bowl back for extra sugar without the cook giving you the evil eye.

Today, I have for you a recipe for fish beehoon soup. The broth for this type of clear fish soup is delicate but flavourful, and relatively quick to make. Bitter gourd/ melon is a classic accompaniment to this Teochew-style fish soup. It's "blood-cleansing and anti-cancerous and really not that bitter" (years of brainwashing by my mum). Really though, a tiny bit of salting takes away the worst of the mouth-puckering juices, leaving just enough bitterness for a bite to the dish. "Plus, did I mention it's very good for the skin?"



BITTER GOURD FISH BEEHOON SOUP
 for 2 
Ingredients
1 bittergourd (or 2 baby ones, like I used- note: more bitter)
200g very fresh white fish*
100g dried beehoon (thin rice vermicelli) 
sea salt
1/2 tsp tapioca flour/ cornstarch

for the stock
500g fish bones*
200g chicken bones, any skin removed**
1 large handful dried anchovies (ikan bilis)
1 bulb garlic, left whole
water
sea salt and rock sugar, to taste
big dash of white pepper

to serve
fried shallot oil
chopped coriander
chopped red chillies
good traditionally brewed soy sauce

Method
1. Prepare stock. Parboil chicken and fish bones and discard the scummy water. This gets rid of blood and impurities which will make your stock cloudy. Bring the bones, garlic, dried anchovies, and enough water to cover to a boil, and then turn down the heat and let barely simmer for 1 hour. When ready, drain the stock through a sieve and chuck the bones and bits. Season to taste.
This could be prepped in advance; you can double the stock recipe and freeze portions. Once you have the stock, it takes 15 minutes to serve. 
2. Slice bittergourd in half, scrape out the seeds and pithy centre, then slice very thinly. Toss with a big pinch of salt and set aside.
3. Remove any skin and bones on the fish, and then slice into little 1/2 cm-thick fillets. Lightly marinate with a pinch of salt and the tapioca/corn starch.
4. Blanch rice vermicelli in boiling water till just cooked, drain and divide into bowls.
5. Squeeze the bittergourd to remove the bitter juices. Bring the stock to a simmer and add the sliced bittergourd and fish, stir through, and switch off the heat once the stock returns to a simmer. Let the fish continue cooking in the residual heat of the broth (less than a minute).
6. To serve, pour hot broth over the rice vermicelli, along with bittergourd and fish, and drizzle the fragrant fried shallot oil over. Finish with fresh chopped coriander; soy sauce-and-chilli dipping sauce on the side if you like.

* I use horse mackerel, but any firm, fine-textured white fish (bream, bass, snapper, grouper... no oily fish like salmon or British mackerel) would be delicious. As fresh as you can possibly get please, Chinese are anal about this. 
*It might seem odd to also use chicken bones for a fish soup, but it's my mum's trick to a stock that's not overly 'fishy'. Chicken stock tastes neutral enough for it not to taste 'meaty' either, and you only use a little anyway. I love chicken fat but it will work against the lightness of this broth. 




Simple, clean, and so comforting. This was my noodle soup. Add another drop or two of shallot oil, throw in more coriander, or go crazy with the chillies, if you like.

~

More Asian soups
The 'right' way to make stock
'Old-fire' watercress soup
Marrow goji berry stew

More noodle soup
XO fish head noodle soup
Mee hoon kueh (torn handmade noodle soup)
How to make bouncy 100%-fishballs 
How to make Asian egg (alkaline) noodles

If you want more yummy photos in between my very infrequent blog posts
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My lovely friend Uyen returned to her hometown in Saigon around the same time too. A wonderful peek into the Vietnamese culture from an insider's point of view, here.

50 comments:

  1. Love this Shu Han and thanks for pointing out it's not fishy, because I have a problem with fishy. This looks beautiful, the light broth, the green bitter melon and the white noodles. I loved watching your trip on Instagram, I was quite jealous as I slurped mugs of tea to keep me warn while you were slurping noodles! I wanted to slurp noodles!! Anyway, how can anyone tire of rice and noodles?? Ridiculous. I want noodles now so Im going to see what I have. And quit apologising, we're here when you're ready to post!

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    1. Yeah my sisters have a big problem with fishy (me, I happily eat fish eyes) so my mum makes sure the broth isn't too fishy, while still light enough for a fish soup. And phew, thank you for that, I really do hope to be more active on the blog front.. hehe for now Instagram will have to do.. HANOI WAS WONDERFUL (double jab :D) It was cold there too actually, but that made all the noodle soups even more delicious!

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  2. Great post! You made me nostalgic for Vietnam. The two times that I was there were around this time of year. Tet is such a huge holiday there, you just get swept up in all the celebrating and eating and more eating. A lot of pho and a lot of seafood. There was a more than a little drinking going on, too, but that's a whole other story. Great pictures, as always! Thanks for sharing!!

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    1. Thank YOU for dropping by Gene! It is great this time of the year! The festive lanterns are all up, and because it's winter, the cool weather (in Hanoi at least, which is up north) makes for especially great noodle-slurping. It was my first time there, I loved it!

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  3. I miss bitter gourd!! The noodle soup looks so fresh, light yet so flavourful.
    Have a wonderful weekend, Shu Han!
    Angie

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    1. Thank you Angie! Can you not get bitter gourd where you are? :( I'm thankful they are everywhere here in Singapore, and so cheap at that!

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  4. Great post and pics as usual! Missing authentic Vietnamese coffee, Bahn Mi and amazing Pho with all-you-can-pick-herbs.

    Since you are on the topic of fish stock, was wondering if you have a better clue than me on how our local famous fish head beehoon chefs create their intensely sweet and creamy broths without the use of evaporated milk (like the cheats do).

    Western recipes instruct us to only barely simmer fish bones and heads for no more than 30 mins, resulting in a light fumet complemented with herbs. The Chinese style has us shallow fry these parts in oil and ginger and just adding water, salt and Chinese cooking wine but the flavour is so intense and the broth has so much texture. Since we only always use non-oily fish, am I right to assume this emulsification is from the frying oil and water (Leslie Tay from Ieat seems to think so too)? Tried to do the same at home but was never able to achieve the same result. Any thoughts on this?

    Btw, I'm the 阿基师fanboy if u remember and I have more of his books on sea mail after my recent trip! You are still welcome to borrow them. Do check out his recently released autobiography 逆。进 from our NLBs. Good read but most of his stories are already covered in tear-jerking interviews on Taiwanese interviews. Let me know if you want the links and I'll email them to you.

    Cheers

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    1. Hello hello Sean! Yes of course I remember you! Fellow fangirl here. Please do send me the links, I would love to have a read. He's such an inspiring chef, such great Chinese kitchen skills, and so true to Taiwanese produce. shuhan90(at)gmail.com, thank you!

      Re: the sweet creamy fish soup, I've done it before! The link is at the bottom of this post, with XO added, no less ;) I think both Western and Chinese recipes use a bare simmering of the fish bones to get a clear, light fish broth actually, but for this style, which is creamy, it is due to the furious emulsification of fat and water. Fat from the oil you fry bones in, but also from the fat/collagen-rich fish head which is used. Try it and see if it works :)

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  5. Lucky you! I would love to visit Vietnam one day. I don't know Vietnamese cuisine well, but everything I have tasted was lovely. I once bought a book with street food recipes and it makes me travel and dream every time I leaf through. I just can imagine how wonderful street food must be there... I am not surprised to learn you have come back inspired.
    It's funny because I have just prepared another post about stock (a slightly different one). This stock sounds very original (fish+chicken bones). One more recipe to test!
    I tasted bitter gourd first time in Japan two years ago and loved it, but thought it was a typical hot weather vegetable: the bitterness is very refreshing and gives one energy. (It's also a perfect drink food, just like dried and grilled squid with innards... but it's another story ;-) ).
    Your soup looks amazing! Much much better than any Vietnamese soup I have ever seen.

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    1. It is a cuisine that is really worth exploring Sissi. Especially in your case! If you favour light clean flavours like the Japanese food you often explore on your blog, you will love Vietnamese food. Also, there is always an emphasis on the balance of sweet, salty, sour, and lots of fresh herbs and heat.

      Haha! The ESP blogger thing we have going on strikes again! Looking forward to reading about your stock post!

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  6. looks like some fun travels fun soup my hubby loves bitter gourd

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    1. Thanks rebecca, that's funny I used to hate bitter gourd, but years of brainwashing and black bean sauce has changed my mind. Now I love it!

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  7. Mmmmm! Most of these ingredients are completely foreign to me and I will probably never be able to get them in my rural backwater, but oh, you make me dream of travels far afield and jaunts down side streets to little food stands and smiling cooks who speak languages that are smiling jibberish to me and who serve generous ladles of their best offerings!

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    1. This soup is very versatile! Just swap the bittergourd out for another green you have available to you, and (though I'm pretty sure you can get coriander anywhere these days) you can also use chopped spring onions or celery leaves :) The rest of it are definitely ingredients you can get anywhere, in fact there are hardly any ingredients to this dish.. bones, salt, sugar, noodles...one of the reasons why I love it so much.

      I love how you put it.. smiling jibberish haha! That's often how I feel when I travel- Often confused but wide-eyed with wonder!

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  8. I love bittter gourd on stir fry with green chili and taucho or fermented bean...
    Never made a soup of it, sounds introguing!
    btw, i always love your fun photograph!!!

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    1. Yes! My favourite way is in a stir-fry with fermented black beans, with some thinly sliced pork belly and chillies. Took years of black bean sauce to change my mind (I used to hate it).

      And thank you :)

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  9. Sounds like you had a fantastic trip Shu Han, I'd love to visit Vietnam one day. I love the idea of the herbs on the table for everyone to help themselves. The soup looks so clean and light. Who could ever tire of noodles and broth!

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    1. It was wonderful! I really loved the place, it had one of the most vibrant cultures I've come across in a city, very different from other places that I've been in Asia. And the FOOD culture is especially wonderful! YAY noodles and broth ftw.

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  10. Goodness, I feel like I have to start every post with an apology for being away as well! No matter what, always grateful when you're back :-) I love the idea of grabbing soup on the side of the street... your description made me long even more for discovering SouthEast Asia... I want to learn and experiment so much more with broths and noodle soups! :-) Take care, my friend.

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    1. Guilty hi five Helene!

      You should really try to visit Southeast Asia one day, it's a very different experience, and a feast for both for the eyes and stomach. Broths are a huge part of our culture, be it just a bowl of noodle soup or a 'complete' meal of rice, 3 dishes, and 1 soup. You'll love it! :)

      You take care too! xx

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  11. Thank you do such an informative and interesting post! I love learning new things and seeing new recipes :)

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    1. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed this and got something out of it:)

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  12. This is absolutely fantastic, Shu! I am so not familiar with Asian style broths and yet I love them and would like to be able to make so good ones at home without relying on pre-made ones. This recipe is truly precious!

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    1. Glad this was helpful Valeria! Now on the other hand, I would love to learn more about Italian brodos! Any tips? :) x

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  13. Shuhan, you've really been keeping yourself busy lately! I am so jealous of you traveling to both HK and Vietnam within on week span of time. I love bitter melon and have booked in the soup similar to yours. Next time I'll also have to put in some rice noodles. Great stuff!

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    1. Hur hur quite the opposite... this is what people who are NOT busy have the time to do ;) Rice noodles make this a more complete meal but you can also have it with rice on the side- I love it that way too.

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  14. Very healing bowl of soup! I have grown to love bitter gourd, and love it in any form. But I have to salt it first to take the edge off a little. Happy CNY in advance!

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    1. Same here I salt it too. Some people say the more bitter the better for the body (you know the Chinese saying...) but I'm chicken, plus I want my food to taste good!

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  15. Oh man, you are hitting up all the Asian food capitals! My mum is currently in Taiwan for Chinese New Year without me, mocking me with photos of the crowded markets and my Grandma's kitchen… what I would give to be there.

    Anyway,THANK YOU for the thorough emphasis on good broth! It really is the key to any bowl of truly soul-warming noodle soup. Always been a fan of the bitter gourd (or maybe I was just brainwashed too early to remember otherwise) and of course white fish. Photos are looking as bright and fresh as I imagine the broth tastes.

    Are you headed back to London anytime soon?

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    1. I am contemplating Taiwan in feb.. hur hur not to further rub salt into the wound.. maybe :p

      Broths are so important! A good broth makes all the difference and can make for 10 minute meals on a busy weeknight. It's a fridge staple. And you are weird. You always LIKED bitter gourd?! Really?!

      Back in London by early March, if all goes well with the visa, fingers x

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  16. i did not like bitter gourd as a kid, and i only have it sparingly now as an adult. i have been tempted lately to try it again. one of the things i like to do, which might dilute the potency of nutrients of the veg, but more importantly dilutes the bitterness, is a quick flash boil of the gourd before adding it to the main soup. it makes it more palatable to me.

    ps. so very jealous of your trip to hanoi. i was only able to stay in the southern part of the country when we went 2 years ago.

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    1. Actually the best way to love bittergourd again is black bean sauce. Lots of it ;)

      I hope you make it to the north someday! I loved the culture there. A lot of the old architecture and way of life can still be found there, and there are some foods there are more specific to the north, like bun cha for instance, grilled meats and slippery rice noodles served with a sweet salty dipping sauce and loads of fresh herbs. Yum! I would love to go back to Vietnam again myself, perhaps to the south this time.

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  17. Hello my name is Francesca and I'm Italian. I found your blog by chance and I loved it. I have joined your followers. If you go too foul. Thank you. Francesca.

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    1. Hi Francesca! Glad you enjoy my blog and thanks so much for the follow :) x

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  18. Just stumbled upon your beautiful blog, such a pleasure to read and love the story from travels :)

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  19. Hi Shu Han!I love those wrinkly looking bittergourds. I also love anything noodly and buns, lots and lots of buns although I'm staying away from them for a while! Sobs! Here's wishing you Gong Xi Fa Cai!

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    1. Why staying away?! And gong xi fa cai! :)

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  20. Lucky you with all of your worldly wanderings... no apologies necessary! I think I could sip on noodles and broth all day long too :o) love the choice of vermicelli in this recipe (my husband's favourite) and the collagen is an interesting one for sure... I wonder if it makes it to our skin before our digestive enzymes get to it... I'm all for the theory though ;-). Beautiful photos Shu.

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    1. Thank you Kelly! Vermicelli's also one of my favourite rice noodles... but then there's also kway teow, pho, hor fun........

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  21. Shu Han ! I feel so guilty of not having kept in touch ! Can’t believe it’s been half a year last time I commented around here ! I’m finally not really done with highschool yet, I had no choice but studying one more year, but I have to be really really serious now to make this finally end ! Thus my weak avoidance of the blogosphere… to be fair, I’m kind of anal too in my own way and I didn’t feel like blogging at all if I had no time enough to do it well. I’ll be quiet on the blogfront for another while, but I’d like to make up something new afterwards, I hope you’ll still find some interest in it then.
    I’m so glad you didn’t give up like me, in spite of your tight schedule ! I quite miss reading and commenting your recipes, all the more as there’s been some highlights here since then ! I’d like to be able to try every single of your recipes (if only I could get my hands on sea purslane…) and hope your book will soon be to purchase from France too (the min jiang kueh made me drool !) ! Your recipes are so simple and show such a sure taste at the same time, it’s typically the kind of food I like (btw, I’m now pretty familiar of chai poh omelette with congee - I loved it). Anyway, when I read your posts, I often feel the very same way than you about food !
    Hope it’s not too late to wish you a very very happy new year. It’s still time at least to wish you a great year of the horse ! I’m happy to learn about your past year’s achievements, and hope things will keep sorting out for you, in an even better way, in the future too ! I’ll be trying to stop by more often from now on... By the way: this soup looks just like heaven to me ! Though I haven't ventured to try bitter melon yet - I think I'll have to take the plunge ! Cheers. Helena

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    1. Hi Helena! Don't be silly what guilty! You are definitely welcome back anytime you can and want to, and of course you should put your studies first silly! I will definitely check back on your blog once you are ready to blog again- I love and miss your entries!
      Seems liek you've been catching up on the past blog posts ;) Glad you enjoy them and really hope you get to give them a try. And surprised you like congee! Haha it is such a tough one for many Westerners.. The book was supposed to be up on Book Depository, but I hear there's been issues with teh shipping on the distributor's side so I'm not totally sure :/

      And, a very happy new year to you lovely! x

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  22. "sawtooth coriander" - ha, is that the long leaved stuff that they always served when I ordered pho in Paris? I never heard it called this before! Some research showed up that it was often called "culantro" (note the 'u' instead of the 'i'), but that just seems like a cop-out since cilantro is the American name for our coriander - it just seems like someone thought "hey, I don't know what this is but it tastes like *cilantro*, oh, hey, I'll call it *culantro*" - pfft, I much prefer the sawtooth name.

    I've always wanted to try bitter gourd. I obsess a bit about certain vegetables (I once had a fight with my mother over who was going to slice up an aubergine) - it looked so perfect and I wanted to do it. Same for the gourd. I heard you're not supposed to eat it if you're pregnant? Heard anything about that?

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    1. Culantro?! What is that?! The long leaved stuff you have while ordering pho is probably Vietnamese mint, or as we call it in Singapore, laksa leaf. Sawtooth coriander looks as its name might suggest, sort of rough with saw-toothed edges, and tastes very much like coriander but even more coriander-y; it's kind of tough so you have to chop it more finely.

      Yeah you're not supposed to eat it when pregnant maybe because it's considered very 'cooling' or 'yin' while you want to be very 'warming' when you have a baby. (Lol don't ask me to explain this. I somehow magically grew up knowing if most things are cooling/heaty.)

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  23. This sounds sooo delicious and really has me craving a bowl! Can you make it for me one day? I feel like I'd be hopeless at this area of cuisine. I love bitterness so I think that this is really the soup for me! You also have me really craving a trip to Vietnam. I'm thinking about making it my next trip! :)

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    1. I'd happily make you a bowl if I see you! ;)

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  24. I've only recently discovered Pho and I am completely addicted now! I can't wait to move to London so I have access to more ingredients to make my own! you recipe looks delicious, and your photos are stunning!

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    1. Thanks Jenny! I could have pho everyday! When are you moving to London? The Kingsland road area is full of Vietnamese shops and restaurants- you must go there!x

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