The story of Bún Xêu

“Are you giving Thanks?”, asks Der Miller. I should. It is my first independent Thanksgiving. There will be no turkey, not because they’re not that tender but because it’s cruel to take their lives on the day that everyone else celebrates. There will be no green bean casserole or sweet potato with marshmallow, not because I’m lazy but because I have no oven. There will be no cranberry sauce or stuffing, for no shining reason. I’ll just make the one thing that is both simple and not ramen: bún xêu.

Over 2000 years ago lived a king in a foreign land, who ordered his royal kitchen staff to prepare a party to welcome his future son-in-law from another foreign land. Naturally the king wanted a feast with national specialties, which included a type of rice flour pastry with sweetened mung bean paste. The flour had to be made in the morning of the same day to avoid it turning sour, and one young kitchen helper, who probably liked to get up early as much as I do, was in charge of preparing the batter.

Instead of mixing rice flour and water in a bowl, the half-closed-eye boy happened to use a strainer instead, which, fortunately, was placed on a pot of boiling water. When he realized what was going on, the needed pastry batter had long turned into fine strings of rice noodle. The chef caught the boy’s mistake, but sympathizing with his weariness, told him to pick some herbs in the garden and use fried lard pebbles to make stir fried noodle for the kitchen staff’s breakfast. In that season, only water celery was in abundance.

A servant of the king dropped by the kitchen to check on the preparation process, and was charmed by the aroma of water celery and lard. He asked for the dish’s name. The chef, panicked by the boy’s mistake, intended to say “xào” (|xao|, “stir fry”) but mispronounced it into “xêu” (|seh-oo|). The servant took a taste, liked it, and ran off to tell the king about a new creation named xêu, then the king went to the kitchen to try it himself. This is when matters really got out of Kitchen Boy’s hands: xêu was ordered to be served at the party that day.

Over 2000 years later, bún xêu, however so simple, is still considered a historically valued specialty of the Cổ Loa Citadel region, just 20km north of Hanoi today. The creation of rice vermicelli (“bún”) would not have happened in Northern Vietnam then, had the kitchen boy not been drowsy, the chef not sympathetic and creative, the servant not curious, and the king not open-minded. And so it goes the story of bún xêu. 🙂

Bún xêubún xào cầnstir fried rice noodle with celery

The main ingredients:
– Rice Vermicelli (sold at Asian markets with the label “Bún Khô“)
– Celery (good luck finding water celery im Supermarkt, so the normal chubby stalks are quite alright), sliced into finger long sticks.
– Lard, or Cooking Oil
– Salt, Pepper, Sugar

The supporting roles: Onion, Garlic, Mushroom, Green Onion, Coriander, Egg, Soy Sauce or Fish Sauce.

Blanch the bun and set aside. Make a thin omelet, set aside till cool, slice into strips. Sautee the garlic, onion, sliced mushroom, celery, and green onion (in that order), add a little bit of water, season to taste.
Now you have two choices:
1. Add the bun into the veggie skillet and spatula it like mad until everything entangles together. Re-add seasonings to taste. Pro: stuff mixes well. Con: your bun can get mushy, stick together, and be shortened to the size of rice grains. It all depends on how mad your spatula skill is.
2. Put a wad of bun on a plate, scoop some mixed veggie and sauce onto the bun, and mix while you eat. Pro: long noodle strands preserved, chewiness preserved. Con: it’s not really “bún xào” if the “bún” wasn’t “xào” (stir fried).

Decorations: omelet strips and coriander.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Turkey!

– Submission to Delicious Vietnam 8, a monthly blogging event created by Anh of A Food Lover’s Journey and Hong & Kim from Ravenous Couple

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