I've never been to Vietnam. All my experiences of Vietnamese food are in and around London, from what used to be almost weekly trips to Café East in Surrey Quays, and traversing the lengths of Kingsland Road. I once went on a date to Salvation in Noodles in Dalston, and had such a delicious noodle soup that I sought out to create it myself, cobbling what I could gather from the interwebs. That's all set to change, with a trip to Vietnam planned in January - Saigon, Phu Quoc and Hoi An - hit me up with best things to eat and places to stay, please!
So this Bun Rieu is very basic. It's the basic retelling of this dish, originally from the Mekong, from someone who has never visited it. I can only apologise now for any lack of authenticity, but what I do know is that it tastes really good. Some recipes add pork to the crab mixture for a more solid cake, and others add fresh crab meat; I wanted to try this as unadulterated as possible.
It's made using a very tomato-heavy broth, sometimes reddened by annatto seeds (I didn't bother) and funked the funk up with fermented shrimp paste. It's the runny type, almost violet in colour, and that shit stinks, yo. It's also called Mam Tom, and the Chinese also use it as 'fine shrimp paste'. I have a bit about it in Chinatown Kitchen, along with accompanying recipes of how to use it to delicious potential. You'll recoil like you've been shot if you take a long whiff of it. You'll rejoice when you realise that once cooked, it transforms.
What does seem key in this recipe is 'minced crab in spices', that you can buy in cans from Vietnamese and Chinese supermarkets. Without it, you'll have to pound paddy crabs to a pulp, with shells and all. Don't ask me what the spices are. I have no idea.
What you're aiming for is to make the broth, then add the crab mixture so that when it cooks, it makes a big floating crab cake for you to break up into each bowl. The soup is simultaneously tart and sweet with tamarind and tomato, deeply reminiscent of the sea. Bun are round noodles, and they slither about in the broth; served with an assortment of herbs, to flavour each mouthful. You can buy all this stuff in London at Longdan (various branches).
750ml vegetable broth
3 large tomatoes, chopped roughly
1 tsp fine shrimp paste
1 tbsp tamarind puree
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 can of crab with spices
150gr dried shrimp, soaked for an hour in cold water, drained and then blitzed until fine
2 large spring onions, whites and green separated
2 cloves of garlic, minced
200gr dry weight bun noodles (labelled jiangxi noodles), cooked until tender and drained
A bunch of Thai basil
A few sprigs of rau ram (hot mint)
A few mint leaves
A few perilla (or shiso) leaves
A small handful of coriander
4 tofu puffs, soaked in boiling water and squeezed dry between two spoons, then halved.
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges
In a large saucepan, heat 1 tbsp the oil until shimmering. Mince the greens of the spring onion and add to the saucepan, along with the garlic. Cook until fragrant, then add the crab. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes, then decant into a bowl to cool. Add the blitzed dried shrimp.
Clean the saucepan out and add the oil again. Add the whites of the spring onion, minced, then the chopped tomatoes. Add the broth, tamarind, shrimp sauce, fish sauce and simmer for 10 minutes until the tomatoes start to break down. Don't boil it.
Whisk the eggs into the crab and shrimp mixture. Turn the heat on high, and add this to the broth, drizzling it as you go, then let it cook, undisturbed, for another 3 or 4 minutes. Take off the heat. Check the seasoning; if it needs more salt add a touch more fish sauce.
Divide the noodles into 4 bowls, add 2 tofu puff halves, and ladle the hot broth over it evenly. Garnish with mint, perilla, hot mint, coriander and basil leaves, then top with a lime wedge and serve immediately.