Contrary to popular outsider belief, Vietnamese cuisine is not all about pho, the de-facto national dish that takes all the limelight. Pho may be the most popular Vietnamese dish outside of Vietnam, and of course, it is delicious, but there are plenty other lesser-known dishes that are if not better, close contenders.
One such example is bun bo Hue, a flavorful, spicy and meat-heavy Vietnamese noodle soup that originated in the central Vietnamese city of Hue, hence the name. This dish is also a favorite of the locals, and also claimed as the “Best soup in the world!” by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Let’s see why.
We get to enjoy bun bo Hue thanks to a courageous little lady
Well, sort of. That’s what legend says anyway. Bun bo Hue is traced all the way back to the 16th century and legend goes that there once lived a young lady who was especially talented in cooking. Instead of joining her peers who were all farming out in the field to make ends meet, she chose to use her talents and cook rice noodles for her little village.
Unfortunately, one day, the village fell into a drought that lasted for three straight years. Wanting so desperately to get out of it, the villagers decided to point fingers at our little lady, blaming her for making God angry and causing the drought. But why would God be angry with her for making such delicious food and serving the hungry villagers?
Well, to make rice noodles, one must grind rice grains using a hand mill, effectively destroying it’s sturdy shape. Rice was thought of as a gem of God in the past, so if you add two and two here, you’ll see why people believed that she made God angry. As a result, she was given an ultimatum: either give up making her noodles or leave the village. Well, she chose option two. Lucky us!
Leaving the village wasn’t easy for the bun bo Hue lady. She had trouble finding a place to live, cook and make the residents happy. After a while though, she found her new home at last – Van Cu, a beautiful village near the tranquil Bo river, located about 30 minutes from Hue city. All the villagers loved her cooking, and her bun bo Hue was given a name as it began spreading throughout the land.
From a simple recipe to the complex meal it is today
Bun bo Hue was, back then, a very simple dish. It was just a handful of rice noodles and stir fried beef drowned in a simple but delicious broth. This is exactly what the name stands for: Bun (noodles), bo (beef) and Hue (the region). With time, however, the dish evolved and became as complex as it is today with not only braised beef, but also pork, congealed pig blood, crab cakes, and a broth made by simmering a bunch of herbs and veggies along with beef and pork bones for a couple of hours. The stock and the dish is now more pork-intensive than it is beef, and a more accurate name to describe what it is now would perhaps be bun Hue.
Bun bo Hue is made in stages. First, the broth, which is considered the soul of the dish. The broth is made by simmering the pork and beef bones with various herbs. A little bit of mam ruoc (shrimp paste that is a little less pungent to the usual mam tom) is added. Mam ruoc is still strong enough that lemongrass needs to be added to neutralize it. The secret of a good bun bo Hue broth is getting the ideal balance of lemongrass and mam ruoc, and this is a skill in itself. Too much mam ruoc and you have a strong broth. Too much lemongrass makes it bland.
Then comes the meat! The juicy and flavorful beef and pork are the stars of this dish. The beef brisket and pork shank get boiled in the soup, with a bunch more herbs added, the most important being ginger. Onion, salt, sugar also get added. Once the meat is well cooked, they are removed from the broth and chopped into slices. The broth continues to simmer with the bones for another hour or two.
The bun bo Hue rice noodles are different from your typical noodle as they are bigger and a lot more slippery! It is made from a combination of rice and cassava flour, making it also chewier. To create the final mouth-watering bowl, a bunch of rice noodles, pork shank, and beef slices are washed over with hot broth. To garnish, bean sprouts, shaved banana blossom, water spinach and lettuce are added to the top. A wedge of lime is squirted over it all. It’s a beautiful work of art.
Eating bun bo Hue is an experience
A bowl of bun bo Hue looks really tempting, but don’t jump into it immediately! The most important thing to remember when eating it is to not rush your meal! Take your time and give your senses a wild ride. First, take a good look at your bowl and the various components. They all come together nicely. Dip in your spoon and take a slurp of the broth. Is it to your liking? Do you need more spice in it or more lime? Add those in if you think it is necessary but the best taste is when your bowl is unadulterated and enjoyed as it is served.
Next, capture a bit of noodles, bean sprouts and banana salad, along with a chunk of beef brisket between your chopsticks. Take a hearty bite and with your left hand, take in more broth with your spoon. Don’t forget to savor the pork shank as well. Repeat until there is nothing left.
The best bun bo Hue that stays almost true to the original recipe is found in Hue. Surprising, right? If you decide to head there to try this legendary dish, you will find it being made in the traditional cooking pots that are exclusive to the region. Bun bo Hue can also be found country-wide as it is a favorite among the locals. Take a seat at either of these restaurants in Hue, Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, and slurp away at your bowl.
Hue was, for a long time, the capital city of Vietnam, and for over a century and a half, served as the seat of power for the ruling dynasties. The city saw the creation of many signature Vietnamese dishes during these times, meaning bun bo Hue was once the food of kings and emperors. To really feel like royalty, make your way over to Hue, find a sidewalk establishment serving bun bo Hue and go to town on it.