Happy New Year! It's another start of a brand new year where resolutions are made, then later broken. Instead of making my typical resolutions that will just go down the drain in a month or so, I came up with the following to ensure I see them to the end: Exercise less, eat more junk food, and insert "that's the way I roll" in as many conversations as I can. So far so good.
When we think of Vietnamese food, people usually think of Pho, a very popular Vietnamese Noodle Soup dish made from either beef or chicken stock. But have you heard of its fiery cousin, Bun Bo Hue? Bun Bo Hue isn't quite as popular as Pho but I think it's slowly getting into the spotlight as one of the tastiest Vietnamese noodle soup dishes. Bun means noodles, Bo means beef, and Hue is a city in Central Vietnam, also the former capital of Vietnam, that it originated in. Despite it's name, Bun Bo Hue is also made from pork bones. This can cause a lot of confusion on a menu, especially if you don't eat pork
The broth for Bun Bo Hue is prepared by slowly simmering various types of beef and pork bones (ox tail, beef shank, pork neck bones, pork feet, and pork knuckles/ham hocks) and loads of lemon grass. The fiery spices, made up from frying together garlic, shallots, red pepper flakes, paprika, fermented shrimp paste, tender parts of lemongrass and ground annatto seeds for the iconic red color, are added later in the cooking process. The broth is then seasoned with salt and sugar.
To assemble this bowl of heavenly goodness, thick round rice noodles are added to a bowl and then topped with slices of brisket, pieces of ham hocks, and cubes of congealed pig's blood. The savory broth is ladled on top of the rice noodles. The bowl is finished with a garnish of green onions, cilantro, and white onions and served alongside a small plate of shredded cabbage, banana blossoms, bean sprouts, mint leaves and lime wedges.
The result is a fiery bowl of well balanced, delicate flavors of spicy, salty, sour and sweet. I love to eat this noodle soup in the Winter to warm up the belly and wake up the taste buds.
Tip to remember. If you are ever in the city of Hue in Central Vietnam, this noodle soup dish is called Bun Bo, not Bun Bo Hue. If you are outside of Hue and its surrounding cities, then the dish is referred to as Bun Ho Hue.
In the below recipe, I skipped the annatto seeds altogether and simply used the premix seasoning, which includes the red coloring. These premixes are readily available in convenient small plastic packets in the seasoning aisle of most Asian grocery stores. They are great when you want to cut off some time in the kitchen.
Spicy Vietnamese Beef and Pork Noodle Soup Recipe (Bun Bo Hue)
Ingredients (serves 8-10)
4 liters water
4 lbs pork neck bones, ham hocks, foot, or knuckles
4 lbs beef brisket, ox tail, shanks or knuckles
10 stalks lemongrass
1 tablespoon salt
1 lb of precooked congealed pork blood (boil in water for 5 minutes, drain, pat dry with paper towels then cut into cubes)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 extra large shallots (slice thin)
1/2 head garlic (about 4 cloves, slice thin)
2 tablespoons of red pepper flakes
5 teaspoons premix Bun Bo Hue seasoning
5 teaspoons shrimp paste
5 teaspoons salt
5 teaspoons granulated white sugar
2 packages dried rice vermicelli (soak in water for at least one hour)
Garnishes / Side Vegetables
3 stalks green onions (slice thin)
10 sprigs cilantro (remove stems and mince finely)
1 small white or yellow onion (slice translucently thin)
1 bag bean sprouts
1 small red or white cabbage (slice thin)
1 cup whole mint leaves
1 small banana blossom (slice thin)
Thoroughly clean the bones and meat: To a large stock pot, add water until 1/2 full and then bring it to a boil (gauge the pot to make sure it will fit all the bones and meat without overflowing the water). When the pot reaches a rolling boil, add the bones and meat with a tablespoon of salt. Boil for 3 minutes. Drain the contents in a colander and thoroughly wash under cold running water to remove all the surface impurities. Set aside.
Prepare the lemongrass: Cut off the bottom tender white parts of the lemongrass and mince finely. Set aside. Use a mallet or a side of a cleaver to pound out the remaining 2/3 rough and leafy parts. Smashing the lemongrass will release its fragrance. Tie the smashed lemongrass into a bundle with twine. Set aside.
Wash the stock pot that was used to clean the meat/bones and fill it with 2 liters of water. Bring the pot to a boil then add the cleaned bones, meat and bundle of smashed lemongrass. Simmer on low for 2 hours. Frequently skim off the scum that floats to the top.
After 2 hours of simmering, prepare an ice bath. Remove the shank, brisket, hocks/feet or any meat from the stock pot and plunge them into the ice bath to stop the cooking. Stopping the cooking process and cooling the meat will also firm them up, particularly the brisket for easy slicing. Pat dry and set aside. Cooking the meat and hocks for too long will obliterate them into oblivion, something I learned from my many mistakes.
Continue to simmer the stock pot with any remaining bones on low for another hour. After one hour, remove all contents from the stock pot.
In a small sauce pan, heat the vegetable oil on medium heat. Add the shallots, garlic, red pepper flakes and tender parts of lemongrass that we set aside earlier. Fry until fragrant (about 2 minutes). Then add the fermented shrimp paste and Bun Bo Hue seasoning mix to the sauce pan and fry for another minute.
Transfer the content of the sauce pan into the stock pot. Season with salt and sugar.
Prepare the rice noodles per package instructions.
To serve, place a handful of cooked rice noodles into a bowl. Top the noodles with sliced brisket, a few pieces of pork knuckles, and cubes of congealed pork blood. Ladle hot broth onto the noodles and garnish with sprinkle of green onions, cilantro and white onions.
Serve bowl with a small side dish of bean sprouts, cabbage, banana blossoms, mint leaves and wedges of lime.