I came through the door yesterday, saw my domestica, Carmen, cooking beans on the fogata outside and immediately know that today had to be the day. I had had cow bones in the fridge for a while now and was itching to use them but with the high price of gas for cooking, I knew I had to make the broth over the fogata, the wood fueled outdoor oven that belongs solidly in every Nicaraguan house. With only a short time to spare, I cut up the onions and garlic and ginger and threw it all with the frozen beef bones on the fire. Carmen came out just as I had finished charring them over the flames and was putting them in the big pot with water.
“What are you doing now?” She asked. By now she was used to my “experiments”: my fermenting jars of kimchi on the windowsill, my bi-weekly pots of bubbling milk for making yogurt, my jar of sourdough starter that occasionally became too excited and overflowed onto the surrounding counter, and my flax-seed milk that floats like some brown sludgy deluge in unnamed jars in the fridge.
“Phó,” I say, “it is a type of soup from Vietnam”. She doesn’t know where Vietnam is and I wonder if she knows it is a country or if she thinks it is my country.
“Oh, Sopa de res,” she says, spotting the beef bones in the pot “but it doesn’t have anything in it,” she says.
“It isn’t sopa de res, “ I say, “it is more of a consomme, a broth to make soup with”.
She nods but I can see she doesn’t really understand the concept. People don’t make stocks here for use later on. They make sopa de res, once a week, usually on Sundays where they thrown a ton of beef, bones and all with malanga and potato and yucca and plantains and boil the hell out of it for three hours (it is delicious, by the way, worthy of its own post one day).
My host sister comes home and sees me fanning the fire outside. “What are you up to now?” she asks curiously.
“She is making Sopa de res,” Carmen answers, “but without meat or anything else”
“Why wouldn’t you add meat or at least some vegetables?” My host sister asks.
“It isn’t sopa de res,” I answer with a sigh “it is more of a consomme, like a stock for making soup later. It isn’t sopa de res, it is a soup from…it is a different kind of soup. From Asia”
My host brother’s wife comes in.
“Oh there you all are, what are you doing?” she asks, coming to join us all standing around the fire and staring into the pot.
“She is making sopa de res,” says Carmen.
“But why is there so little meat?” Cristina asks,
“It is a different kind of sopa de res,” answers Mari.
“It is sopa de res but without the vegetables, or meat,” says Carmen.
I give in.
“It is sopa de res from Asia”. They seem contented by this answer and by the end of the night the whole extended family knows I am making Asian sopa de res without vegetables and meat and half of them have come to stare into the murky brown depths of the cauldron.
When I actually make the Phó they all seem impressed. It is to the benefit of my family that they have never tried real phó because my version kind of sucks, lacking some essentials like fish sauce, black bean sauce and of course siracha and using pasta instead of rice noodles and adding some vegetables like broccoli and carrots. Lucky for me I have been growing Thai basil and Thai peppers in my garden and have a lime tree for the garnishes which, as always, seem to be the hardest things to find.
“This soup you could sell here” my host mum Aura says, slurping up the last of her phó. That is her biggest compliment, her stamp of approval for my various projects (unsurprisingly my Kimchi,Sauerkraut, and flax seed milk have all failed by those standards). Little do they know what is coming at them: I have decided to make Tonkatsu Ramen, quite possibly the richest and most amazing Asian soup you will every try. It is made from chicken bones and pig trotters, simmered for hours to reach a perfect consistency of fat and gelatine and flavour. My friend killed a pig yesterday so he has the feet I need to make the creamy, rich, gelatenous base. To make it more fun I have decided I am going to choose,kill,butcher and prepare the chicken myself that I will use in the stock and document it because, why not?
So, unless you are a vegetarian or easily grossed out (in which case maybe skip the next few posts), stay tuned for the start of my serious culinary experiments into the heart of northern Nicaragua.