As the Vietnamese New Year gets close, people rush to the market to stock up on traditional food for Tet. Among the signature dishes prepared in Hanoi are chung cake or banh chung, Vietnamese-style ham or gio cha, sticky rice, chicken, dried bamboo shoots and bun thang, which is vermicelli noodle soup with chicken, pork and egg.
In the past, bun thang was prepared on the fourth day of Tet, when Hanoians ate a meal to see off their ancestors. A bit like the concept behind paella or bubble and squeak, the ingredients for the soup are all the leftovers — anything from ham, chicken and shrimp to pork and vegetables. The sweet and earthy taste of bun thang makes it a cannot-do-without dish for Hanoians, a light culinary relief after days of eating heavy food.
Yet, despite being supposedly thrown together, making bun thang is a painstaking process requiring no less than a dozen ingredients, including chicken meat, pig bones and meat, eggs, dried shrimp, lean pork paste, shrimp paste, onion, mushroom, belostomatidae essence (the essence of the giant water beetle) and herbs.
“There are a number of qualities that make up a delicious bowl of bun thang,” explains Nguyen Phuong Hai, the well-known chef who has made it his raison d’etre to rediscover the ‘lost’ dishes of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. “The broth must be clear, and it should reflect purity. The taste is both light and sweet, thanks to the boiled chicken, pig bone and shrimp. The toppings must be thinly sliced, matchstick-sized, then perfectly placed side by side. This makes a bowl of bun thang look visually stunning.”
Not Just for Tet
These days, people have less time on their hands. So instead of spending hours preparing a noodle soup, people head for eateries on the street. That explains why signature Tet dishes like bun thang are available every day. The way the soup is prepared has also been simplified — both in terms of the ingredients and the cooking process.
If you want to treat yourself, bun thang can be found on Hang Hanh, Cau Go, Ha Hoi and Hang Hom. One of the best eateries in town, however, is at 33 Hang Hom, Hoan Kiem.
The name of the dish, bun thang, is comprised of ‘bun’ and ‘thang’. ‘Bun’ means noodles while ‘thang’ is translated literally as ladder. However, according to Ms. Ly, the owner of the eatery on Hang Hom, ‘thang’ also comes from the word for a ‘pack’ of northern medicinal herbs, or thang thuoc bac.
“Bun thang got its name because it is made up of a lot of ingredients, a bit like a pack of thuoc bac,” she explains. “It is also good for the health and makes you feel fantastic after eating a bowl of it.
“The broth, the soul of the dish, has a distinct sweet and light taste. It requires the cook to stay near the boiling pot to remove all the impurities created during the cooking process. The result is a clear, sweet broth that does not have the unpleasant odour of pig bones.
“But the real secret in the broth lies in the shrimp paste. The paste is notorious for its awful smell. However, it is the ingredient that stimulates the taste of the dish. As the shrimp paste is put into the broth while boiling, it is fully cooked and the smell is erased. It is this that differentiates bun thang from other types of noodle soup.”
After placing the noodles into the bowl, Ms. Ly carefully arranges the toppings, using strips of egg, shredded white chicken, mushrooms, sliced salted radish and fluffy shredded sea shrimp. Some greens — coriander and parsley — are added after pouring the boiling hot broth into the bowl.
“To me, herbs like coriander and mushroom are very important,” says Ms. Ly. “They create a feeling of relief, and accentuate the earthy taste of the soup.
“But according to the traditional recipe, both the broth and the toppings alone are not enough to conjure up the right taste of bun thang. Belostomatidae essence, which is not easy to find nowadays, is another ingredient used to spice up the soup.”