It's not surprising that not many Vietnamese restaurants serve Bún Mắm. The smell is incredibly pungent that will drive non-Vietnamese customers right out the door. If you want a taste of this exotic noodle dish, head to a Vietnamese community such as San Jose, CA. There you will find the air filled with the highly pungent smell of fermented fish and no one bats an eye.
Bún Mắm is a far cry from Phở. A typical bowl of Bún Mắm includes rice vermicelli noodles, egg plant, shrimp, squid, pork belly and flaky white fish. It is often served with a plentiful platter of crunchy vegetables and Vietnamese herbs, limes and fresh chilies.
What makes Bún Mắm stand out from all the other Vietnamese noodle dishes is the broth. The broth is murky, salty and flavored with the granddaddy of all Vietnamese condiments, fermented fish. The use of fermented fish to flavor the broth in this noodle dish can melt paint off walls if you are not accustomed to it. Even I, a full-fledged Vietnamese, can take a second or two to get used to the smell. But once you get passed the smell, the taste is packed with umami flavor and it simply works.
Recipe below for the daring. Crack open a window =)
Vietnamese Fermented Fish & Seafood Vermicelli Soup Recipe (Bun Mam)
1 jar fermented fish (Mắm cá sặc)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced lemongrass (tender white bottom parts only)
2 whole lemon grass stalks (smashed)
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 lb sliced pork belly (optional)
3-4 eggplants (cut into bite size pieces then soak in salted water for 15 minutes)
1 lb white fish fillets (cut into bite size piece)
1 lb shrimp (peel and devein)
1 lb shrimp (cut into bite-size pieces)
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon chicken/pork/mushroom stock powder
Vegetable platter (bean sprouts, garlic chives, perilla, sliced red chilis and limes)
1 package vermicelli noodles (cook per package instructions)
Fill a small pot with 1 liter water (about 4 cups) and bring to a boil. Add in the whole jar of fermented fish and cook for 5 minutes until the fish fermented fish is completely dissolved. Scoop out any foam that floats to the top and discard. Pour the liquid through a fine-sieve strainer. Discard the tiny bones in the strainer and set aside the liquid.
In a large stock pot, heat vegetable oil. Add minced garlic, shallot and lemon grass. Saute until fragrant. Add 3 liters water. Pour in the fermented fish broth and bring pot to a boil. Add pork belly (optional), eggplant and bruised lemon grass stalks. Cook for 30 minutes on a low simmer.
Add fish in a metal basket and lower the basket directly in the broth to cook. Remove fish and set aside. Do the same for shrimp and squid.
Season broth with salt and chicken/pork/mushroom stock powder.
To serve, add handful of vermicelli noodles into bowl, ladle on hot broth, then add seafood toppings. Serve with a plentiful platters of Vietnamese herbs, lime wedges and red chili.