As I said, Bun Rieu Cua Tom Oc (Vietnamese Crab and Shrimp Paste Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup with Snails) was the beginning of a furious week of cooking. Bun rieu is one of my favorite Vietnamese soups. It's also the most laborious on account of shelling the crab. It's also one of the most expensive meals I've made as I spent about $30 on ingredients. Ironically, it wasn't the fresh crab that was so expensive as I went with the cheaper rock crab that are usually $1.99/lb at the San Gabriel Superstore. The tomatoes, especially out of season, were almost the same price as the crab. But a proper bowl of bun rieu cua tom oc also includes a pound of shrimp, periwinkles, curled rau muong (Vietnamese water spinach) stems, sliced banana blossoms, pork spare ribs, fried tofu, and more. Yes, there are a lot of components to bun rieu, but made properly, it will also be one of the most satisfying of Vietnamese soups.
As with a lot of my cooking, I had a craaaaving. A craving in which I knew I would not be satisfied with a restaurant version of bun rieu. This is not a recipe I would have attempted until now. One of the benefits of blogging is that I recall flavors of dishes much better than I have in the past. Before, I would have been satisfied thinking something was "good" or "good enough." These days, I find myself picking apart the flavors and textures and ingredients of favored dishes. Am I turning into my momma? Ack!
Unfortunately, bun rieu is one of those soups with which people often take short cuts. Every recipe I stumbled across online used canned crab paste. I used to think my second-youngest uncle's wife's bun rieu was great. And while it still is, I was disilllusioned when I saw her open a can of bun rieu crab paste. *Sniffle.* Even a consultation with my favored "Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart" cookbook turned up the use of canned crab paste. Nooo!!!
No canned crab paste for me! I was on my own with this one.
I don't remember my mom making bun rieu often when I was growing up. Nonetheless, no adventurous recipe tackle can be started without a quick consultation with my momma. I remembered Noodlepie's photo of a "rieu" that was in one big piece, the traditional way that it's supposed to be made. The "rieu" is only broken when serving. Instead of one big piece, my mom prefers to spoon out small balls of the crab and shrimp paste actually. Ssshh! And when crabs are too expensive, she uses canned bun rieu crab paste too.
Mom asked me how I planned to make the broth.
Strained crab and shrimp shells. Pork spare ribs.
What about the "rieu"?
Crab, shrimp, pork, and eggs to bind them together.
Well, then, seemed like I knew what I was doing, she said. And that was that.
As I said, there are a lot of components to bun rieu. I've handily labeled all the key parts for you below. Make a list when you go grocery shopping. You'll need it.
I made a 7-quart pot and then some. Invited my brother and his wife over for dinner. My brother's usual "compliment" is none at all and when pressed, once said: "I'm eating it, aren't I?"
But that evening, they both slurped every last bit of the broth. Brother asked me how many times I had attempted bun rieu before.
He was amazed. And when I offered to pack some to-go for both of them, they leapt at the chance. His wife was quite excited, and well, the only other food I can remember her getting excited about was my chicken liver pate.
I still had plenty left over for the next day so I invited Tony of Sinosoul and his better half, and Gourmet Pigs and her friend. Despite groaning about how full he was, Tony still ate five bowls.
Umm, you could have stopped when you hit full, instead of eating until bursting, I said.
But Tony replied that he knew he couldn't get this kind of bun rieu in a restaurant and was afraid I would never make it again.
Amused by the absurdity, I retold the story to Gourmet Pigs, who urged, "You're going to make it again. Right? Right?"
And then her friend hopped onto her chat to thank me again for the bun rieu.
Later, I told my momma all the stories - about how my brother and his wife slurped every last bit of broth, about how Tony ate five bowls, and about how Gourmet Pigs asked if I'll make bun rieu again. Despite vaguely knowing about my blog for the past several years (my oldest uncle stumbled upon it one day and told my parents), my mom hadn't really bothered to read it. Until now. What can I say? Bun rieu has magical powers.
(Hi, mommy! I don't really eat as much as it looks like! I feed lots of other people with my cooking and the going out pictures are of other people's food too! My blog isn't real-time! I know that's not the way you do things, but I cook differently and other people seem to like it just fine. I promise to exercise more and eat less! I'm watching out for lil' sis! I feed brother and his wife too! I know you love me, but it doesn't help me find a husband or give you grandchildren any sooner when you nag. :P I love you!)
Bun Rieu Cua Tom Oc (Vietnamese Crab and Shrimp Paste Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup with Snails)
For a 7-quart pot, you'll need:
For the soup, you'll need:
2 or 3 small crabs, boiled and meat removed. (About 1 cup crab meat). Wash and save the shells.
1 lb shrimp with heads, peeled and deveined. Save the heads and shells.
1 lb pork spare ribs, separate the ribs
1/2 lb ground pork
1 lb oc huong (Vietnamese periwinkles or sea snails)
1 package fried tofu
4 fresh tomatoes, cut into big chunks
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes
1 onion, diced
1 tblsp nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce)
2 tsp salt
For the crab paste, you'll need:
2 tblsp fresh lump crab meat
2 shallots, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp mam ruoc (Vietnamese fermented shrimp paste)
2 tsp Tuong ot toi (Vietnamese chili garlic sauce) or tuong ot xa (Vietnamese lemongrass chili sauce)
1-lb package bun (Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles)
For serving, you'll need:
Rau muong (Vietnamese water spinach), curled stems only
Bap chuoi (Vietnamese banana blossoms), thinly sliced
Herbs including kinh gioi (Vietnamese balm), tia to (Vietnamese perilla), mint, cilantro
Mam ruoc (Vietnamese fermented shrimp paste)
Tuong ot toi (Vietnamese chili garlic sauce)
Lemons or limes
Traditionally, the crab used in bun rieu is cua dong, small crabs found in rice paddies. The crabs, shells and all, are mashed and then strained. I have seen this sold frozen at the supermarket but the mixture was black, which kinda freaked me out. I bought the cheaper rock crabs at the grocery store, but you can use blue crabs or lump crab meat. If you don't know how, read my crab primer on how to select or prepare crab.
Boil the crabs. Rinse them well while still whole. Remove the crab meat and the crab butter and set aside. Reserve the shells for stock.
Peel and devein the shrimp. Reserve the shells and head for stock. Set the shrimp meat aside.
I suggest using two pots for stock.
For the crab and shrimp stock, fill a 5-quart pot about 3/4-full with water and put it on high heat. When the water boils, add the crab and shrimp shells and turn the heat down to medium and let simmer.
Wash the pork spare ribs and cut them into individual sections.
For the main stock, fill a 7-quart pot about halfway with water on high heat. When the water boils, add the pork spare ribs and turn the heat down to medium. Let simmer about 15 minutes. Then skim the scum from the surface. Add 1 chopped onion, 1 tblsp fish sauce, and 2 tsp salt.
On the left, I added the crab and shrimp shells, which will be strained later. On the right is the serving broth with pork spare ribs. I used two pots because I wanted the spare ribs to flavor the broth, but didn't want to pick out any shells.
The fresh crab and shrimp. You'll need 2 tblsps of the crab meat.
In a frying pan, drizzle a bit of oil and add the 2 tblsp crab meat with 2 finely minced shallots, 3 finely minced garlic cloves, 2 tsp fermented shrimp paste, 2 tsp chili garlic sauce.
Saute until the shallots and garlic are softened and the aromas are released. There! You've just made bun rieu crab paste without any MSG or artificial preservatives. Add the whole mixture to the pot with the spare ribs.
Roughly chop 1 lb of shrimp in the food processor. Take the remaining crab meat, 1 lb of shrimp, 1/2 pound ground pork, and two eggs and mix thoroughly. Add 1/2 tsp salt or 1/4 tsp of mam ruoc if you wish.
Spread the mixture in a shallow pan. Set aside in the fridge to chill and bind.
Thinly slice banana blossoms. Set aside in a bowl of salted water.
Wash the herbs and bean sprouts. Split and curl the water spinach stems. Set aside the rau muong stems in a bowl of water until ready for serving.
Boil the rice vermicelli noodles and set aside. There are two sizes of bun (Vietnamese rice noodles). The thicker kind, used in soups such as bun bo Hue (Vietnamese Hue-style beef noodle soup), are often sold in straight noodle form. You'll want the thinner kind for bun rieu, sold curled in packages.
After preparing all the condiments and noodles, it's time to strain the stock. Place a colander into the bigger pot of pork spare ribs.
Then slowly pour the small pot with the crab and shrimp shells into the colander.
Lift the colander out and the crab and shrimp shells are already strained out for you. Easy! You may now discard the shells.
Taste the broth and season with salt, fish sauce, or shrimp paste, if necessary. Depending on how fast you work, the broth should have been simmering for at least an hour.
Add the can of diced tomatoes, freshly chunked tomatoes, and fried tofu.
Then remove the crab, shrimp, and pork paste mixture from the fridge. Gently slide the "rieu" on top of the tofu, trying to keep it as intact as possible. I then ladled broth over the "rieu" until it was slightly cooked enough to stay whole. Alternatively, you can just form small balls of the mixture and drop it into the broth.
One big "rieu." The relatively flat paste mixture cooked in about 10 minutes. Just be sure to break it up when it comes time to serve.
Add in the periwinkles after you add the crab paste. The sea snails were already cooked so didn't need much time. These are optional as they don't add much flavor to the soup, just a textural contrast.
Add noodles to the bowl and ladle the broth over making sure to get the "rieu," spare ribs, tofu, and sea snails.
Let guests garnish as necessary. For bun rieu though, the lemony flavor of kinh gioi is an essential for me. So is an extra dollop of shrimp paste.
I'll tell you upfront, while bun rieu is not a difficult recipe, it is laborious. Yes, you can cheat and use canned crab paste, but as you know, that's not the recipe I'm gonna give you. Set aside a day for shopping and prep. Make a big pot since you're going through all that work. Invite family or friends. Do it right. Trust me. The results are infinitely more rewarding.
My other Vietnamese noodle soups you may like:
Bun Bo Hue (Vietnamese Hue-Style Beef Noodle Soup)
Crock Pot Pho Bo (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)
Hu Tieu Saigon (Vietnamese Clear Noodle Soup with Barbecued Pork and Shrimp)
Mi Hoanh Thanh (Vietnamese Wonton Noodle Soup)
Mi Vit Tiem Chay (Vietnamese Vegetarian Duck Chinese Five-Spice "Duck" Egg Noodle Soup)
Pho Bo (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)
Pho Ga (Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup)
1 year ago today, jungle red hibiscus.
2 years ago today, I go cuckoo for cocoa.
3 years ago today, Pho Ha Vietnamese Restaurant - Pomona.