Bun Bo – Beef Lemongrass Noodle Soup
When I first approached my mom with the idea of writing a blog that focuses on 52 of her delicious recipes, I didn’t imagine she would start with such a (what I thought) daunting recipe. Well, I guess if you’re going to do something, do it big and start it with a bang!
This week’s recipe is Bun Bo. Some people call it Bun Bo Hue, which just refers to a specific Vietnamese region where this dish is popular, near the city of Hue.
This is a perfect dish to warm up your family on a cold Sunday. It’s the lesser known stepchild of more popular Pho, which is the noodle dish that many people think of when considering Vietnamese cuisine. Bun Bo broth is darker and has a red hue. Some recipes use annato seeds to get a deep red color, but nowadays, it’s possible to achieve a great flavor and color via simpler spice packets that are readily available in most Vietnamese or Chinese markets. My mom’s recipe uses pork, in addition to beef, to build more complex flavors.
Note: This version, as with all of the recipes in the Mom’s 52 series, is exactly how my mom makes it. You may choose to alter it in your own way – for this recipe, some may choose to add the delicacy of congealed blood (huyet). The recipe below omits it.
Bun Bo (Bun Bo Hue) – Beef Lemongrass Noodle Soup
INGREDIENTS for a large pot that serves 10:
- 1 gallon of water
- 1 Tbsp. of salt
- 3 lbs of beef shank
- 2 lbs of pork bones (xuong heo)
- 2.5 lbs of pork calf (heo gio) or pig’s feet, cut into pieces about the size of your hand
- 7 small shallots
- 3 Tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
- 10 stalks of lemongrass
- 1 Tbsp. of shrimp sauce (mam ruot or mam tom)
- 1 packet of bun bo hue spice (2 oz.)
- 1.5 gallons of water
- 7 Tbsp. of fish sauce (nuoc mam)
- 3 Tbsp. of salt
- 1/4 C. of sugar
- 1 small onion
- 1 gallon of water
- 2 lbs. of dry vermicelli noodles (bun giang tay or bun tuoi dac biet). Mom’s preferred brand: Ong Gia Que Huong. How much do you need? Packages of noodles come in different sizes. A single serving will be about the width, length, and thickness of your hand.
- 1 package of bean sprouts, washed and dried
- 2 limes, cut into wedges
- sliced jalapenos or thai chiles, to taste
- variety of herbs, washed and dried. Examples: mint, cilantro, or any other bunch of herbs from the Asian market produce section – go with the ones that smell the best to you!
- 1 (additional) bunch of cilantro, washed and dried
- 1 bunch of rau ram herb (optional)
- 1 small onion (any color, though red is good for presentation)
STEP 1: BLANCH THE MEAT
- Place 1 gallon of water into a very large stockpot.* Add 1 Tbsp. of salt. Bring the water to a boil via high heat. (To speed up the process, cover the pot.)
- Meanwhile, rinse your meat, if you prefer. (Mom does.)
- Once the pot of water comes to a boil, gently add to it all of your meat – the beef shank, pork bones, and pork calf or pigs’ feet.
- Remove the meat after one minute. (If blanching your meat in a single batch, simply pour the pot contents into a large colander in the sink.)
- Rinse the blanched meat to remove the surface scum.
- Rinse your pot well and dry it. You’ll need it for the next step.
*If you don’t have a large enough stockpot, you can do Step 1 in batches.
STEP 2: START THE BROTH
- Thinly slice 3 small shallots.
- Add 3 Tbsp. of EVOO to your large stockpot, and heat it using medium heat.
- Using a mallet or the underside of a small frying pan, pound the base of 5 lemongrass stalks atop your cutting board. (Hold the lemongrass in one hand, the mallet in your other.) Give it a good 2 or 3 whacks, just to bring the flavor out. Cut the lemongrass into sizes that will fit into your stockpot, i.e. 4″ pieces.
- By now, your EVOO should be well heated, so add the lemongrass and shallots and stir to saute them for a few seconds.
- Add 1 Tbsp. of shrimp sauce (mam ruot or mam tom). Mom says this is a must have!
- Add the entire 2 oz. packet of bun bo hue spice.
- To keep the mixture from burning, immediately add 1.5 gallons of water. Turn the heat up to high.
- Add 7 Tbsp. of fish sauce, 3 Tbsp. of salt, and 1/4 C. sugar to the broth.
- Cover the pot, and bring the broth to a boil.
- Add the blanched meat to the boiling broth and let the broth rise to a gentle boil once again.
- Once the broth returns to a gentle boil, turn the heat down so that it maintains a simmer.
- Skim the scum. It’s important to do this throughout the cooking process. Failure to skim the scum regularly will yield a murky broth. Be careful to not scoop the red oil with the scum. The red oil is necessary for the color of the dish. Click here for Kitchen Tips on how to skim the scum.
- The meat will cook at different paces. Remove the pork calf/pigs’ feet after about 45 minutes and set aside in a large bowl. Remove the beef shank after about 2.5 hours. (The test for doneness: pressing a chopstick into the meat to yield pressure like pushing your finger into your chin means it’s ready. The feel of pressing into your forehead means it’s undercooked. The feel of pressing into your soft cheek means it’s overcooked.) The remaining meat in the broth will be the pork bones. While you are waiting for these cooking times, proceed to Steps 3 & 4 below.
STEP 3: PREPARE THE NOODLES
- Fill a second large pot with 1 gallon of water. Turn the heat up to high and cover. Remove any rope that may have been holding the dry vermicelli noodles together.
- Once the water comes to a boil, add the dry vermicelli noodles to the boiling water. Use a chopstick or wooden spoon to gently stir the noodles for a few seconds so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
- How long should you boil your noodles? Mom cautions to be careful about the instructions on the package – they’re usually not correct! Mom’s trick is to stir the noodles with a chopstick. When you feel the noodles wrap around the chopsticks with less resistance, they’re done. For this particular brand, mom turned the heat off after 3 minutes, covered the pot, and let the noodles sit in the hot water for an additional 5 minutes. (If in doubt, just take out a piece and taste it to test the texture. It should not be so hard as to have pieces stick in your back teeth, and it also should not be too soggy.)
- Pour the noodles into a colander in your sink. Rinse the noodles under cold water, and stir them as you rinse. This step removes excess starch to keep the noodles from sticking together once dry.
- Optional: Mom then individually wraps the noodles into single serve portions.
Don’t forgot to check the broth for more scum to skim.
Go back to check the doneness of your meat, from Step 2.
STEP 4: PREPARE THE GARNISH
- Plate the bean sprouts, lime wedges, choice herbs, and sliced jalapenos/chiles. This platter should be placed on the dinner table for garnish just before eating.
- Coursely chop together the cilantro and rau ram. Place these in a small bowl.
- Peel and thinly slice the onion. Add it to the chopped cilantro & rau ram mixture. Set bowl aside, to be used as garnish just prior to scooping the broth into the serving bowl.
Go back to check the doneness of your meat, from Step 2.
STEP 5: FINISH THE BROTH
- Once the pork calf/pig’s feet and beef shank are cooked and removed from the broth, trim the edges off the remaining 4 shallots. Peel the remaining onion.
- Toast the shallots and peeled onion in a toaster oven for 5 minutes. Take care to not let them burn.
- Add the toasted shallots and onion to the broth.
- Pound the base of the remaining 5 stalks of lemongrass. As above, cut the pounded lemongrass into 4″ slices. Add the lemongrass to the broth.
STEP 6: FINISHING TOUCHES
- Thinly slice the beef shank and pork calf/pig’s feet. Place them into bowls, for ease of serving.
- Remove the pork bones from the broth and discard.
- It’s time to assemble your hearty bowl of Bun Bo:
- Make sure the broth is boiling.
- Place a serving of cooked vermicelli in a large bowl.
- Top the vermicelli with slices of beef shank and pork calf/pig’s feet.
- Top the meat with a handful of the onion/cilantro/rau ram mixture.
- Insert a large ladle into the pot of broth and go all the way to the bottom of the pot. Slowly pull the ladle up to the surface and scoop the broth into your soup bowl. Scooping this way minimizes the amount of fat ladled into your bowl. Repeat until your bowl is almost full. Don’t skimp on the broth! For extra spicy heat, add extra red oil from the top of the broth.
- Top the dish with the herb garnish, jalapenos/thai chiles, and lime juice to taste. Enjoy!
By the time mom and I finished documenting this recipe, our mouths were watering, and we almost forgot to take photos of the finishing product! The main photo above was a quick snapshot before devouring our Bun Bo.
This may seem like a lot of work because of the number of steps involved, but with the steps broken down as above, it’s not too difficult to pull off. It just takes a few hours of time, but the hearty meal is well worth it when you’re done. Bun Bo leftovers are also a great hit!
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