VIETNAMESE RECIPES | We Vietnamese all know bún bò Huế, a typical Vietnamese dish from Central Vietnam whose main city is Huế. My mum makes it, my aunts make it, mums of mums make it; bún bò Huế is one of those dishes you can’t miss if you go to Vietnam. Rumour has it that Huế has the best, the most sophisticated and the most authentic cuisine in Vietnam. It’s no wonder since the city used to be the country’s imperial capital for centuries, being at the center of an aristocratic and intellectual culture of mandarins and scholars. Huế’s cuisine is known for its delicacy, complexity and visual appeal. Because I only know the everyday home cooking version of Vietnamese cuisine, I decided to do some research.
So what did the nobles eat during the Nguyễn dynasty? No less than 50 chefs, carefully chosen among the best across the kingdom served at the court and prepared the most sophisticated dishes. According to the court’s records “Khâm định Đại Nam hội điển sự lệ”, diplomatic receptions typically comprised three meals, each with up to 60 different dishes, savory or sweet. Kings and nobles were served only products of the highest quality: water had to come from the Hàm Long or the Cam Lồ well, the Báo Quốc pagoda or the Perfume River (Sông Hương) source. Rice was of the de variety and grown in the An Cựu imperial rice fields. Bird’s nest soup, shark fin, or rhinoceros’ skin are just a few examples of essential dishes served at the imperial table.
The complexity of the imperial gastronomy strongly influenced the people’s cooking habits in the region. Huế’s rustic and popular cuisine is notable for its sophisticated meals consisting of many complex dishes served in small portions. Besides, the abundance of spices produced by central Vietnam’s mountainous terrain makes this region’s cuisine notable for its spicy food. Typical ingredients include lemongrass, chili peppers, tamarind or shrimp paste.
Today’s recipe is no king’s food but rather popular and even street food. If I ever manage to get hold on the imperial records, I promise to share some recipes! In the meantime, let’s savour this delicious classic, which combines all five elements as defined by the oriental principles of Wu Xing and Mahābhūta: salty (water), spicy (metal), sweet (earth), bitter (fire), and sour (wood). This classic is named bún bò Huế, and is the star today on the blog.
For the broth
- 500 gr beef shank
- 300 gr oxtail or stew meat with bones
- 300 gr beef bones
- 6 lemongrass stalks
- 1 onion
- 1 spring onion
- 2 shallots
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon red annatto seeds (better if already grounded)
- 1 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
- fish sauce (nước mắm)
- olive oil
- shrimp paste (mắm tôm)
- 300 gr rice noodles “bún bò” style
For the garnish
- 1 onion
- soybean sprouts
- thai basil
- 1 or 2 spring onions
- sliced banana flower
- lime wedges
I’ll start by describing some bizarre ingredients you may never have heard of. First there’s the shrimp paste. It has a pinkish greyish color as you can see on the photo below. It’s made of grounded shrimp fermented with salt. As for the fish sauce, it has a strong smell so you may need some time to get used to it at the beginning. Then come the annatto seeds. You can find them whole or already grounded. For this recipe, I chose the grounded version. The banana flower can be found whole or sliced. Because a whole flower would be too much for 4 people, I chose the pre-sliced version in a smaller pack. The rice noodle look like thick vermicelli as pictured below. Purist won’t use dry noodles but make fresh noodles every time with rice flour, tapioca flour and hot water.
In the original recipe, both beef and pork bones are used for the broth. Since I don’t like the flavor of pork bones so much, I used only beef. Put the meat and bones in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil for about 5 minutes in order to release all impurities. Discard the water, rinse the beef bones and meat, and place them in a clean pot. Add about 2,5 litres of water and bring to a boil. Let it simmer with a clean onion and a clean spring onion.
Take 4 lemongrass stalks, cut off the base and use a pestle to bruise them. Add them to the pot with 1 teaspoon salt. Skim the broth regularly to keep it clear and free from impurities. In total, it should simmer for about 2h30.
Since the rice noodles for bún bò Huế are very thick I advise you to soak them in water now to shorten the cooking time later.
Chop 2 shallots and 2 lemongrass stalks.
It’s easier if you first remove the base then bruise the stalks with a pestle. Then cut them lengthwise into strips, then finely chop the strips. Chop 2 garlic cloves.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil, then add the annatto seeds powder, the chili pepper, and fry for 2 to 5 minutes. Add the shallots, lemongrass and garlic, and cook over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes.
Let’s get back to the broth now. After about 2 hours, take the beef out of the pot and separate the meat and the bones. Keep the meat for later and discard the bones. Add the shallots and lemongrass you just made to the broth, together with 2 tablespoons fish sauce and 1 teaspoon sugar. Dilute 1 teaspoon shrimp paste in a little bit of water and add to the broth. Let it simmer for an additional 30 minutes. At the end of cooking, adjust the seasoning with salt, sugar and/or fish sauce.
In the meantime, cook the rice noodles. Bring water to a boil with a bit of salt, and cook the noodles for about 10 minutes or more depending on how thick they are. When they are cooked, drain in a sieve and rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking process. Divide into 4 equal parts in 4 big bowls. Prepare a plate of raw vegetables and herbs (soybean sprouts, mint, thai basil, cilantro, banana flower, lime wedges). Slice 2 spring onions and some cilantro. Slice 1 onion into half rings. Thinly slice the beef meat.
Garnish each bowl with beef slices, onions and fresh herbs.
Fill each bowl with very hot broth and squeeze a lime wedge. If you wish, add some shrimp paste into your bowl and mix it with the broth.
Enjoy your meal!