The Vietnamese beef noodle soup, pho bo, is difficult to make at home: it requires an enormous pot to hold all the beef bones, meat and spices, which are simmered for hours. Pho gai - chicken noodle soup - is easier.
This recipe was developed by food stylist Vivian Herijanto. Be sure to use a fresh chicken - frozen birds have an insipid flavour and flaccid texture. The ideal bird is a large stewing hen, which takes a long time to simmer to tenderness, but which has more flavour. Those are hard to find, though, so this recipe uses a regular chicken.
Halve the onions and cut the ginger into slices about 1cm (7/16in) thick. Place a wire rack over a gas burner and turn the flame to medium. Put the onion and sliced ginger on the rack and cook, turning occasionally, until the surfaces of the onion and ginger are deep brown.
Sprinkle the chicken inside and out with salt, rub it into the flesh and skin then rinse thoroughly. Cut the chicken into pieces - remove the neck by cutting as close to the body as possible (if you prefer, cut off and discard the head). Slice off wings and the legs (drumstick and thigh attached at the joint). Use poultry shears to cut the chicken along one side of the backbone from the tail end to the neck, then turn the bird around and cut on the other side of the backbone from the neck to the tail. Leave the breast on the bone, but use the shears to remove the excess rib bones. Put all the chicken pieces - meaty parts, neck and the bones - in the pot (and include the innards, if you like) and pour in two litres (two quarts) of water.
Place the pot over a medium-high flame and bring to the boil. Lower the flame until the water is just simmering and the mesh skimmer to remove any scum that rises to the surface. Add the charred onion and ginger, along with the peppercorns, cloves, star anise, lime leaves, chilli (roughly chopped), fish sauce and a teaspoon of salt. Simmer for 45 minutes.
While the chicken is cooking, prepare the other ingredients. Put the rice vermicelli into a large bowl, add cool water to cover and leave to soak until pliable before draining. Remove the ends and tips from the beansprouts. Thinly slice the banana chillies on the diagonal.
Use kitchen tongs to remove the meaty chicken parts (the bone-in breast, legs and wings) from the pot but leave behind the backbone, ribs and neck. Put the meaty pieces in a bowl and ladle in enough broth to cover them and set aside to cool. Cover the pot with the lid and continue to simmer the bones and aromatics for 30 minutes.
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the bones and shred the meat and skin. Pour the broth from the bowl back into the pot with the rest of the broth. Strain the broth through a fine-meshed sieve placed over a large bowl. Wash out the pot. Pour the broth back into the pot, place it over a medium flame and heat until simmering. Add the lime juice then taste for seasoning, adding more lime juice, fish sauce and/or salt, if necessary.
Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, add the rice vermicelli and cook for about 30 seconds. Drain through a colander. Divide the noodles between four to six bowls and top with the bean sprouts and shredded chicken. Ladle the hot broth over the noodles and serve immediately. Let your guests add chillies, basil, coriander leaves and lime juice to taste.