The white and green logo-ed Vinasun cab pulled up to the curb by Auntie’s house and those of us without motorbikes piled in.
“Mama! Mama! In a taxi!,” squealed Wee Scotch. He was as excited to be riding a cab as I was nervous to see him not strapped down to a car seat.
We were off to a “Bun rieu” eatery that was nearby and supposedly slurping good according to my Uncle Tsing (not my real uncle but close enough). As we were driven in and out of alleyways, trailing motorbikes going at less than 40 kph and incessantly honking, “nearby” seemed like quite a far drive. I held tightly on to Wee Scotch – as the days in Saigon wore on, he was getting better at sitting still in a car and even let me put a seat belt on him – albeit an adult seat belt.
At last we arrived at the bun rieu vendor – which looked like another eatery-cum residence. We were a party of 8 and took up half of the small interior space.
Bun rieu is a rice vermicelli soup made with a pork, crab, and tomato stock (lots of tomatoes!) and served with crab meat, minced pork, and fresh herbs. I’m sure there are other variations of toppings (I’ve heard of snails) but I haven’t experienced them yet. I’ve read that bun rieu originated in northern Vietnam.
By the way, Bun = rice vermicelli and Rieu = (um, I’m not sure, I’ll have to check with my mom) and Cua = crab. So Bun rieu cua refers to rice vermicelli soup topped with extra crab meat.
Not being able to (ever) pronounce Vietnamese properly, I tend to say the words really fast trying to at least mimic the sing-song accent needed to intone the Vietnamese language. In my attempts to pronounce Bun rieu, what comes out of my mouth is “Moong Yeel,” which looks nothing like how it’s written but sounds close enough (at least to my ears) and has gotten me by all these years.
One of my favorite blogs on Vietnamese food, The Ravenous Couple, shared this insight on how the broth is prepared:
“Traditionally this soup is made with whole blue crabs which are then pounded in a large mortar/pestle. The crab meat is separated from the crushed body. The body of the crushed crab is then put into a fine mesh cloth or sieve and water is then strained through, forming the base of the broth.”
My mom does not make bun rieu in this labor-intensive way (and neither do I) but instead uses an already prepared crab spice mix (canned and available at some Asian supermarkets) and lumb crab meat (from Costco). I have a jar of the spice mix in my Dubai pantry and have been meaning to make my own bun rieu (and post the recipe) for quite some time now.
At this eatery on Tue Tinh Street in Saigon (District 11), bowls of bun rieu were systematically assembled from a small cart at the front of the store and placed on our tables within minutes of us sitting down.
I do not know if there are different soup toppings that can be requested as my mom and relatives did all the ordering in Vietnamese. Toppings included fried tofu (puffy and fluffy), cha (Vietnamese sausage – usually pork), and of course the crab and pork meatballs that are the essence of the cua part of bun rieu cua.
It seemed to me that we all ordered the EVERYTHING bowl. Just the way I like it. 🙂
I watched as the vendor placed rice vermicelli noodles in a large bowl, added the toppings, and from the huge steaming vats of stock, ladled in the red-tinted crab-tomato-pork stock.
A sprinkle of chopped scallions and the bun rieu was ready to be garnished with fresh herbs which we would do at our table according to our individual preferences.
It is important to quickly submerge the garnish into the hot broth before it cools down in order to half cook the herbs (unless you like to eat them completely raw). Alternatively, we sometimes ask that the garnish be presented to us already blanched.
Fresh garnish included some Vietnamese herbs (like Asian basil and spearmint), bean sprouts, shredded water spinach (aka ong choi/kang kong/rau muong) and…
…Can you guess what the garnish below is?
A popular garnish that is added to many Vietnamese soups, the image above is of shredded banana flower or “Bap Chuoi”. It adds a slightly tangy taste and crunchy texture. Each time my mom saw banana blossoms in Carrefour when visiting me in Dubai, she would point them out and tell me about their various uses in cooking.
This Vietnam trip was the first time I had experienced eating banana blossoms. I can’t wait to buy some blossoms for myself and experiment cooking with them.
With ingredients like crab, fresh shrimp, dried shrimp, and shrimp paste in this dish, you can imagine that this soup has quite a strong, almost pungent, flavor that might be overpowering for some. I think this is one of those dishes that you either love or hate.
My mom prepared bun rieu for Scotch once (many years ago when we were still living in NYC), and although he was apprehensive at first smell, Scotch did enjoy the bun rieu and especially the crab-pork meatballs.
Oh! At the eatery, in addition to the garnish of fresh herbs, small white pots of a purple-pungent paste made from fermented shrimp (mam ruoc or mam tom) were also available for adding to the soup to kick the pungency up a few notches (if that’s your thing). I love this stuff but not many people do – it is an acquired taste (like stinky cheese).
This is the same fermented shrimp paste that Filipinos use as an accompaniment to Kare Kare (braised oxtail stew) and the Chinese use as a stir-fry ingredient (like with water spinach aka ong choi/kang kong).
I would love for you to leave a comment and let me know what other preparations shrimp paste is good for!
Some of you have told me that you missed seeing Wee Scotch’s face lately so here he is (on a precarious high chair with no seat back nor seat belt) enjoying a sweet drink along with his bun rieu. He was a big fan of the cha (the Vietnamese sausage) so we ordered a few extra pieces just for him.
By the way, every time Wee Scotch wears that shirt, he sings the Transformers song – at least the only two lines that I’ve taught him (the only two lines that I know): Transformers! More than meets the eye. Transformers! Robots in disguise. La-di-da-da-da-di-di-da-di-da-di-da-the Decepticons!
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Bun Rieu Thang Long: 31F Tue Tinh Street, P13, Q11, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Phone: +84 8 38580359.
I Google mapped the address and this is what came up:
View Bun Rieu Thang Long in a larger map