Monday, April 4, 2011

Bún riêu - Brain soup!

I wonder how many dishes require little, dried shrimps? Too many to guess what I could have been making, I imagine.

I e-mailed my Mẹ to ask her about a dish I planned on making, and she replied with how to make it as well as telling me that the Canh Chua looked good but that I needed to clean the fish more and remove more fins. The next day she called me to go into further detail and we spoke in our common language of Vietnamese and food. I had originally planned to make a dish that is worth bowing for but after we talked about my lack of a steaming pot large enough, I decided to try something more manageable. She told me that the traditional way of making it involves crushing a crab with the shell and getting the juice to make the stock and that it's a lot of work. My brain immediately thought "Is that a challenge?!"  but I decided to try to make the 'easy' or 'less work' version first before buying a crab.

Bún riêu, cutely nicknamed "Brain Soup" by my cousins, is craved by many but not so much by me. For reasons unknown, I did not have a taste for it. Perhaps the combination of flavours were too complex for my simple taste buds whereas my younger cousins were downing bowls upon bowls of the stuff! In the end, I learned to appreciate Bún riêu and although I could never name it as one of my favourites, it is very unique in flavour, texture and visual appearance. But what exactly is that flavour? A salty, sweet, seafoody broth soaked up by a healthy helping of carbolicious Bún. This is topped off by a refreshing blend of aromatic herbs, green onions and bean sprouts. Similar to Phở but Vietnamese cuisine isn't just a one soup wonder.

Oh, in case you may be turned off by the fact that I called it "Brain Soup" I must warn you that I refer to the its likeness to brains a few times during this post. A friend of mine who checked out my blog said that he was a bit unsure with one of the first posts being of a fish head soup. All I can say is that despite mental associations to eating brains, or fish heads, I still eat it. Though that's not saying much, I'll eat almost anything.

Perhaps the solution to Zombie Apocalypses? Apocalpysi?
Bún riêu ingredients
Printable Version

Bún (Vermicelli rice noodle)
- 8 cups chicken broth (or possibly even more)
- 1 540 ml can of diced tomatoes (drained) or 4 fresh ones.
- 1 cup of dried shrimp
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup of crab meat
Get them soaking!
- 1/2 lb of ground pork (This is probably too much, but I just threw it all in. Try a 1/4 lb.)
- 1/2 tsp Shrimp paste (Mẹ said she doesn't use it, and that people can add it after, so I didn't but you can!)
- A clove of garlic
- 1/2 - 1 tbsp  Sugar
- Ground Pepper
-  Fish Sauce

- Mint
- Bean Sprouts
- Lime juice
- Green Onions
- Shrimp paste if you're so inclined
- Other rau thom (herbs that smell good) that you may enjoy...

I searched high and low in my local Korean grocery store to find this small bag of shrimp for 6 bucks. There was a bag of smaller looking dried shrimp for cheaper but they looked like nothing but shells and little black eyes. Soak them in warm water while preparing other items, or until they're soft, about 30-45 minutes. Bring the chicken broth to a boil. (If you are using fresh tomatoes, you'll want to sweat them out in the pan a little in a tiny bit of oil. Season them with a bit of salt and sugar too). Add the water that the shrimp have been soaking in to the broth because according to Uyen Thi, the broth smells thom (fragrant). I am inclined to agree in as much as one can when talking about water in which dried, salted shrimp has been soaking.

Every drop counts.
Put the dried shrimp and crab meat in a food processor and blitz. The ground pork could probably go in as well but I poured the mixture into a bowl, and then added the ground pork and garlic so I could do it by hand, as you can see in the picture on the right. As much as I love my Kitchenaid, I like to do it the ol' fashioned way - with a spoon.

Mix in the fish sauce and shrimp paste Crack the 4 eggs in and mix until it gets all incorporated ... like a brain. I believe depending on the consistency you prefer, you can adjust the amount of eggs vs meat. Less eggs would make it more meaty and formed together whereas more eggs would make it more fluffy and bubbly. As you will see, I get a giant hamburger.

Is it strange that I wanted to eat it in this form?
Pour it carefully into the boiling broth so that it doesn't break apart and retains its brain-like form. Add the tomatoes and a squirt of tomato paste for some natural redness. Then sprinkle in the sugar and pepper.

I actually had no idea how long to cook this for, but once it started boiling, I brought it down to a simmer and just let it sit there while I made some Bún and chopped up the rau thom. I was a bit worried while it was happening but the meat looked a little bit more grey than I remembered. When I finally got everything into a bowl, it tasted more or less like it should and in my older age I think I am able to appreciate how all of the various flavours play together.

I love a lot of lime in my broth. Mmmm. Actually, lime/lemon in
any soup will make it better. 

One more way I sort of knew that it turned out okay was that after the water stopped boiling and the soup had a chance to settle, I noticed that it looked kind of like a coral reef, the way leftover Bún riêu should (At least at my family's house...)

So that's it. It was pretty daunting when I thought about taking on Bún riêu but in the end it wasn't all that much work. Round 2 will involve a crab. Another way I measure success is whether my wife will eat it or not, and if she does, how much of it she eats. Due to the nature of the soup, they require fairly large bowls to accommodate all that goes into them. She hasn't been big on topping her soup with much rau thom or finishing her bowl. Tonight she didn't finish her bowl and had some pita and hummus. Success? I think so. She is  showing signs of a younger me, and after her hundredth bowl or so, she'll enjoy it as much as I do now. I can't lie, I used to walk into the kitchen, see some Bún and think there's a good chance something good is coming from this. Once I'd peer into the pot and saw the brains floating there, my heart would sink and I would consider my other options for food. What an ungrateful child, eh? My cousin who wrote the biography has been loving Bún riêu since she was little. In fact, she probably loves it about half as much as my mom loves making it for her.
Who needs the Great Barrier? This is edible!

Vietnamese lesson/question: When I mentioned Uyen Thi's fragrant shrimp water in my post, I was reminded of how sometimes in Vietnamese, one can say that they can nghe (hear) the smell of something. The verb 'smell' does exist but I'm not sure why the hearing of food came about.