Saturday evening, I'm at a family wedding, full of cake and gazing happily at the flickering tealights dotted around on my table. My 10 year old niece comes up to me and opens her hand and says, "What are these, Daw Daw?" Her palm is full of star anise taken from the table centrepieces. I say to her, "Smell one" and she does, and she says it smells spicy and faintly sweet.
I then take one pod and wave it through a flame and say, "Smell it again", and her eyes light up and she says it smells wonderful. I tell her that it's a spice used in Asian cookery and she runs off to gather more, and then insists I give them all the same treatment.
As I singe the anise pods one by one, she gets one of the wedding favours, a gauzy reticule full of sugared almonds, up-ends the sweets inside, and replaces them with the charred anise. She then reties the satin ribbon carefully and sniffs the newly-stuffed little pouch appreciatively.
That scent of charred star anise, of singed cloves and ginger, of fire-blackened garlic and onion, and of the smokiest of cassia bark spells absolute comfort and deliciousness to me. It's the heavenly fragrance of phở - the beautiful, delicately spiced, clear yet meaty broth of rice noodle ribbons and fresh, leafy herbs which is renowned as the national dish of Vietnam.
The origins of phở seem to have been lost in the mists of time, but the name apparently comes from the French pot-au-feu which shares many elements with phở including adding roasted onion to the broth for color and flavor. Tonight episode of Gordon's Great Escape sees Gordon visit Vietnam, where he will explore the native cuisine and hopefully find out more about where phở comes from.
Although phở gà or chicken pho is extremely popular, the classical version is phở bò or beef pho, and as a meat-lover this is my favourite too, as you can add flank, brisket, sirloin, tendon and even tripe, as well those addictively bouncy beefballs you can find in Asian supermarkets. And at the table, it's fun to tweak the toppings to your heart's content - a little more slivered onion, a touch more mint and a good dash of Sriracha chilli sauce. Here's my recipe for phở bò - Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup.
Making phở is a bit of a labour of love, but the process is straightforward and enjoyable and the end result is really worth the effort. Such a medley of colours and textures and flavours and scents is rarely found, and a bowl of steaming phở is a true joy to lift your soul on a chilly day.
My pho bo recipe on Channel 4 Food
Gordon Ramsay's Great Escapes - Vietnam
Monday 16 May on Channel 4 at 9 pm