The scent pierces through the air, half like fresh lime and half like mint, liberating. The broth is fulfilling like juice from a just-ripe fruit, coating every strand of vermicelli and making them supple like newly washed hair. There is red, white, bright green, fall-leaf yellow green, and the earthy sepia tone of bone meat. My first bowl of bún bung.
Bún bung is a noodle soup of the North. Not having been to Hanoi, I learnt about bún bung from the interweb and tasted it via imagination. My mom has heard of it, but Saigon doesn’t have it, and I don’t know how popular it is in Hanoi today. It wouldn’t surprise me if the old fashion noodle soup is only half surviving in the baskets of old ladies dressing in brown and having their teeth dyed black. Anyway, it has a funny name. Bún (pronounced like “boon” with a quick rising accent) is just the usual rice vermicelli. Bung (pronounced like “bung” in “übung” in German – English doesn’t have this sound) is the method of cooking: stir fry first, then simmer until boil in water. There’s no adequate translation of the name into English, other than “bung noodle soup”. But to me, it’s funny because bung sounds like boom, or bloom (as in flower blooming). For sure, the soup is a flavor bouquet.
Compared to other noodle soups, bún bung requires little time, few ingredients, and not so much attention. It is sort of close to canh chua (sour soup) in the South, but instead of fish they use pig trotters to get the protein sweetness, and instead of rice it’s eaten with bún. It’s also a little close to canh bún cá (fish noodle soup, also of the North), except for the sour taste, because of the use of rau ngổ (L. aromatica, or rice paddy herb, top right corner in the above picture).
What does “ngổ” mean? I have no idea. But the taxonomists couldn’t be more right labeling it “aromatica,” because its scent permeates the room like a direct spray of Febreze, once just after I open the bag and the second time when I pour hot broth over it. The scrawny, airy stems with slender leaves taste a little bitter eaten raw, but comfortably sleek and crunchy like water spinach. In Vietnam, rau ngổ is dirt cheap. In America, it’s $8.99/lb (at 99 Ranch Market). Thankfully the quarter pound bunch I get is more than enough for 6 servings of bún bung.
Also an important ingredient in bún bung (as well as other Vietnamese sour soups) and also named for its aroma is dọc mùng (night-scented lily). Its soft spongy texture is irreplaceable by other vegetables, but good luck finding it in grocery stores. I have to use celery to substitute. The upside is that celery is much easier to wash, while night-scented lily can give you some itchy hands.
That aside, my bún bung uses beef neck bone instead of pig trotters, soy sauce instead of fish sauce, and skips the tumeric powder entirely. But I bunged the bones, so it is bún bung.
— für Đại —
Mai’s bún bung (due to lack of ingredients at the grocery stores she goes to):
(Prepping and cooking time: 2 hours – 6 servings)
- 1.5lbs beef neck bones (or any kind of chunky bone with meat on it)
- 5 tomatoes, cut into wedges (this is a lot of tomatoes, since I don’t have any sour fruit)
- a few celery stalks cut and split into small sticks
- 300g rice vermicelli
- coriander, purple pearl onion, green onion, rice paddy herb (rau ngổ)
- 2 tbs soy sauce, salt and (a lot of) sugar to taste
1. Marinate the bones in diced onion, chopped garlic, 1 tbs salt and 4 tbs sugar.
2. In a big hot pot, sauté purple onion with oil until it smells good (which is pretty quickly), then dump the bones in and stir-fry until brown. Pour as much water as you want (this is the soup stock) and let it simmer. Skim off the foamy fatty layer on top to keep the stock reasonably clear.
3. Meanwhile, cook the rice vermicelli (like cooking pasta), drain and set aside. Wash and cut the greens (night-scented lily, rice paddy herb, green onion, coriander).
4. When the stock boils, add tomatoes into the stock. Wait until boiling again, add 2 tbs of soy sauce, salt and sugar to taste. Add the celery sticks. Keep it hot for serving.
5. Serving: in a bowl put some noodle and vegetables, then pour a few ladles of broth over, make sure you get some tomato and celery too. I also like to eat the meat off the bones. Sprinkle some green onion, coriander, and pepper on top.
Actual bún bung:
(Recipe translated from source, not sure how many servings this gives)
- 1 pig foot (doesn’t sound enough to me, maybe they meant 1 leg? But that’s too much…)
- 4 night-scented lily (dọc mùng) stems, cut into 2-3 inch sticks.
- 6 tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 1kg rice vermicelli
- tamarind or some sour fruit
- tumeric powder, coriander, purple pearl onion (sliced), green onion, rice paddy herb (rau ngổ)
- fish sauce, salt, sugar, black pepper
1. Cut the pig trotter(s) into big chunks and marinate in 2 tbs fish sauce and 2 tbs tumeric powder.
2. In a big hot pot, sauté purple onion with oil until it smells good (which is pretty quickly), then dump the trotters in and stir-fry until brown. Pour as much water as you want (this is the soup stock) and let it stew (pig trotters take time to soften).
3. Meanwhile, cook the rice vermicelli (like cooking pasta), drain and set aside. Wash and cut the greens (night-scented lily, rice paddy herb, green onion, coriander). Mix them with a little bit of salt. Let sit in 5 minutes. Gently squeeze off some water, wash the greens again and mix it with a pinch of tumeric powder.
4. When the trotters are soft, add tomatoes and the sour fruit into the stock. Wait until boil, sift out the sour fruit and add seasonings to taste. Add the night-scented lily sticks. Keep it hot for serving.
5. Serving: in a bowl put some noodle and vegetables, then pour a few ladles of broth over, make sure you get some pig trotter cuts, tomato and night-scented lily sticks too. Sprinkle some green onion, coriander, and pepper on top.