Sunday, January 11, 2015

Vietnamese Spicy Beef Noodle Soup (Bún bò Huế)...

Bún bò Huế ranks supreme in our noshes of Vietnamese noodle soups! It is a regional take on Vietnam's national soup phở, and comes second to its popularity. Bún bò is seductively earthy, rustic and spicy, indicative of the unrefined countryside cooking of Huế, the former imperial capital in central Vietnam. Although its name suggests an all-beef affair, the soup actually combines beef and pork. The ingredients of lemongrass, shrimp paste, cubes of pork blood and pig feet makes this soup distinctively special and unique. In our best bowl experience ever, Bun Bo Hue An Nam in San Jose, California, even adds ox penis which we passed up in ours :). A great local restaurant we used to frequent for this specialty beef soup in Toronto is Anh Dao in Spadina Chinatown, or Pho Vietnam in Scarborough is also a good option.

This was the perfect home-cooked meal to celebrate my husband's birthday, and after a week of being away on business travel, I was sure he would appreciate it along with our closest family friends. I forewent the pork blood and feet so that it would appeal to everyone, and I also made a second broth sans spicy so that the kids could have an option. To make an authentic broth, beef bones are used over pork bones which are now more commonly used, and simmering the annatto seeds in the broth yields a nice rich orange colour (rather than frying the seeds in oil at the end to release their colour and the bright red oil added to the finished broth). The recipe may seem long and arduous, but if you love Bún bò Huế, you will find the broth deliciously rewarding and so satisfying when everyone is smacking their lips at the table! That's why I only cook special soups like this in a large pot, whether I'm feeding a crowd or not, since you're putting in the effort, why not make extras so leftovers can be packed away in freezer containers for another tasty meal later on a whim!

Vietnamese Spicy Beef Noodle Soup (Bún bò Huế)
Makes 8 to 10 servings

Shop for the various meats at the meat counter of Asian supermarkets, and ask the butcher to cut your meats to the specifications.

4 lbs. beef bones, cut into 3-inches
2 to 3 lbs. boneless beef shank in a long piece, halved crosswise
4 lbs. pork hock, cut into 2 to 3-inch pieces
2 or 3 pork feet, halved lengthwise, rinsed and soaked in water for 3 hours (optional)
1 lb. pork blood cubes, rinsed and drained (optional)- sold in tubs
4-5 slices of ginger
salt and ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. canola oil
2 onions, diced
4 to 5 Szechuan chili peppers
1-1/2 Tbsp. annatto seeds
5 quarts water
2 Tbsp. salt
3 Tbsp. fish sauce
2 1-inch chunk yellow rock sugar or 1-1/2 Tbsp. yellow or brown sugar
3 hefty stalks lemongrass, trimmed, cut into 3-inch lengths and bruised
2 Tbsp. fine shrimp sauce
2 pkgs. thick vermicelli noodles, cooked according to package instructions, drained and rinsed with cold water

Chili-Lemongrass Mix:
4 Tbsp. canola oil
3 Tbsp. dried red pepper flakes
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed and minced or about 2 Tbsp. frozen, thawed minced lemongrass
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. fish sauce

1 onion, thinly sliced, soaked in cold water for 1/2 hour
2 green onions, chopped
Rau ram (Vietnamese cilantro), leaves plucked, washed, drained and patted dry
Limes, cut into wedges
Thai chilies, sliced (I used jalapeno peppers as I had some on hand)
Romaine lettuce leaves, thinly sliced into ribbons

Having Bún bò Huế in Ho Chi Minh City with my father-in-law in 2004.

Parboil the beef bones in a stockpot of boiling salted water with ginger for five minutes to release the impurities. Drain, discard the ginger and rinse the bones. Scrub the pot and dry it.

Top left clockwise: Beef bones sold in packages, pork hock (and on chopping board) and beef shank.

Season the beef shank, pork hock and pig feet (optional) with salt and pepper, and set aside. Add the oil to the same stockpot and heat over medium-high. Add the onions and cook about one minute. Add the chilies and annatto seeds; stir to release annatto's colour. When the onion turns yellow-orange, add the meats; briefly sear to lightly brown.

Annatto seeds are sourced to produce a carotenoid-based yellow to orange food colouring and flavour. Its scent is described as "slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg" and flavour as "slightly nutty, sweet and peppery".
Look at that gorgeous colour!

Pour in the water and return the beef bones. Bring to a boil over high heat and lower to a gentle simmer. Using a ladle or oil skimmer, skim off the excess scum that rises to the surface frequently. Add salt, fish sauce, rock sugar and lemongrass. Simmer, uncovered for two hours. If using pork blood, add them during the last 10 minutes as they don't need long to cook and will be rubbery if overcooked.
Bruise lemongrass by lightly hacking with back of chef's knife.

The earthy fragrant aroma filled the kitchen with homey soup-concocting goodness!

When the broth is done, remove the beef shank. Let cool to firm up before slicing. You can strain the broth through a fine-sieve lined with cheesecloth positioned over a pot for a cleaner broth or just leave it like I usually do. Use a ladle to skim as much fat and oil from the top of the broth as you like. 

Make the chili-lemongrass mix by putting the oil, pepper flakes, garlic and lemongrass in small saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over low heat for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in sugar and fish sauce. Let cool in a bowl.

To finish the broth, scoop some chili-lemongrass mixture into a bowl, stir shrimp sauce into it and pour into the broth. You can leave 1/2 the chili-lemongrass mix for the table so everyone can adjust the flavour as desired.

Place cooled noodles in individual bowls and heat in microwave for one minute before topping with meats and soup. Allow everyone to garnish their bowls with their choice and level of toppings.

The herbs of rau ram is fascinating and aromatic!

Add a few slices of beef shank, some pork hock and load it up with onions, greens and a splash of lime!

Hearty, savoury and spicy... love at first sight, bite and one that lingered through our night!

A bowl from another occasion... add thinly sliced raw cabbage or bean sprouts!...

Quoc enjoying Vietnam's national soup phở in Vietnam!

For more on Vietnamese cuisine, type Vietnamese in the Search This Blog field near the top on the right side. Enjoy!


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