Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Bun Bo Hue

Last spring, I was sent to the Boston metro area for work for a few weeks. While I was there, I had a major craving for Vietnamese food and ended up finding a little banh mi shop called N&H Saigon Subs. I got a banh mi sandwich and at the suggestion of the shop owner, I got a bowl of the bun bo hue.

Bun bo hue is a noodle soup that originated in the city of Hue. It's my new favorite Vietnamese soup (sorry, pho) because it's deep, rich, and as made obvious by its red color, it's spicy.

After I got back from my work assignment up north, I headed to my favorite local Vietnamese shop and realized they also had bun bo hue on the menu. I immediately had pangs of depression that I'd been coming here for years without knowing about this awesome soup.

To pay tribute to my new love, I decided to try making my own version at home. I read a few articles, watched the episode of Parts Unknown where Tony goes to Hue and basically describes it as his favorite place, and researched where I might locally buy the ingredients I needed. I based the flavors of my recipe on the one I've been enjoying at my nearby Vietnamese restaurant and a version I tried whilst visiting Philly, where one of the ingredients listed in the menu description was pineapple. I found the proteins, seasonings, and produce I needed at an Asian market nearby and this post demonstrates the fruits of my labor.

It's definitely a long process (you'll have to dedicate about 4 hours one day and 1 to 2 on the second day) but it's worth it.
Ingredients [serves 4]:
stock
2 lbs. pork neck bones
2 lbs. sliced pork legs
1 lb. beef oxtails
1 lb. beef shank
10 to 12 cups water
6 lemongrass stalks, bruised
8 cloves garlic, smashed
knob ginger, smashed
½ pineapple, quartered
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
salt to taste

sate
½ cup canola oil
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons shrimp paste
2 lemongrass stalks, bruised
6 cloves garlic
8 Thai chili peppers

soup
4 to 6 servings bun rice noodles
1 lb. Vietnamese pork roll, sliced
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
2 cups mung bean sprouts
2 cups shredded lettuce
2 limes, cut into wedges

Begin by adding the pork neck bones and pork legs in a pot and top with water. Bring to a boil and then drain. Rinse the meat to get rid of the scum and nasty crap. Basically, this parboiling process is to help get rid of some of the impurities and fat in the pork.
Soak the beef shank and oxtails for about 30 minutes in cold water. This is to help drain the myoglobin from the meat, which will yield a clearer, cleaner stock.
Clean and bruise six stalks of lemongrass. If you've never worked with lemongrass before, basically, you have to trim off the root end and the dried up tops and peel off the outer, woody layers. Then, to help release the essential oils, the lemongrass must be smashed (or "bruised") to expose the innards.
Smash the ginger and garlic too. Pile the lemongrass, ginger, and garlic in a cheesecloth and wrap it up. Tie with kitchen twine.
Add the cleaned pork neck and pork feet, soaked oxtails, soaked beef shank, and lemongrass bundle to a large stock pot with 10 to 12 cups of water.
Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the stock for 3 to 4 hours, or until the meat is tender.
Skim off the scum and then allow the stock to cool.
Cooling the stock will make it much easier to skim the fat off of the top. Skim off the fat and then remove the meat from the pot. Throw away the lemongrass bundle.
Strain the stock to get rid of any icky bits and then return the oxtails and pork neck bones back into the stock pot.
Trim the pineapple and add to the stock, pouring in any juices that might have been released during the dissection. Simmer for about 30 minutes.
The spicy component will come from the sate. To make the sate, start by pulverizing two bruised lemongrass stalks, garlic, and Thai chili peppers in a food processor until finely pureed.
Grab a skillet and heat over low. Add in canola oil, paprika, and cayenne pepper and stir. These spices will certainly help with the flavor and spice but will also give the soup its signature red color.
Once the pan is sizzling and the oil is red, stir in the shrimp paste and let the sate cook for about 3 minutes to allow the oils to absorb the flavors. Fat is a great taste-delivering agent, as it soaks up flavor v. well. Then, add in the lemongrass puree and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the garlic and lemongrass become fragrant and soft.
Add fish sauce, sugar, and about a ¼ cup of sate. Add salt to taste.
To garnish the soup, slice the shank thinly, slice up some pork loaf thinly, and chop cilantro. Cook the noodles according to the package instructions. I found fresh noodles in the Asian shop, which I boiled briefly and then gave a massage under cold water to enhance the chewy texture of the rice.
To assemble, pile noodles in the bottom of each serving bowl. Top with the thinly sliced shank, the thinly sliced pork loaf, and a pork foot. Pile chopped cilantro in the center and then ladle in lots of hot broth.

From watching Anthony Bourdain, I know that traditionally there is pork blood cubes in the soup as well. However, I've never had it and therefore don't know how to handle it; all of the versions of bun bo hue I've eaten so far didn't have pork blood cubes (maybe because the Vietnamese restaurants in the US are aware of American squeamishness), and most importantly, I couldn't find any in the market. However, if you're a fan, I've read that you can precook it and add to the bowl along with the meats and cilantro prior to pouring in the broth.
For accoutrements, provide a pile of mung bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, cilantro leaves, and lime wedges. Oh, and scoop the leftover sate into another bowl to serve at the table. Additional sate can be stirred into individual bowls of soup for anyone who wants it a bit spicier.
Is that not a gorgeous bowl of soup?
The soup is warm, spicy, fragrant and bright (thanks to all of the lemongrass and ginger), and the depth of flavor is phenomenal. The pineapple adds a subtle sweetness and freshness and helps give the broth a really clean flavor; the clean flavor can also be attributed to all of the effort to par-boil the meat and skimming and straining the broth. It's unctuous without being greasy and it's really complex in flavor. It's so good.
By the way, leftover broth and meat can be frozen. To reheat, wait for it to defrost enough to lift out of the container and then pop into a pot and warm up. Do not store any noodles in the broth, as they do not reheat well, and frankly, they tend to absorb a lot of liquid and take on a gummy, gross texture. An alternative is to freeze the broth in an ice cube tray for quicker and easier defrosting.
Here's the recipe page:

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