Bún Thang is a northern Vietnamese rice noodles soup that calls for some very intricate (and long and tedious) preparations. According to this Vietnamese cooking blog, the dish was made famous by Mrs. Nguyễn Xiển (nee Nguyễn Thúy An, though some sources say Nguyễn Thị An) who whips it up from scratch to entertain her professor/party-official husband's colleagues. When asked why she calls it "Thang," she said her family tutor taught her that the Chinese character for the Vietnamese word "Thang" - 湯 (also pronounced "tang" in Mandarin and I would guess a similar sound in Cantonese also) - means "soup," and that in China, brothy dishes usually has this character 湯 added to indicate "soupiness." Yet among all the noodles soups in Vietnamese cuisine, none has this word "Thang" attached, and so Bún Thang it is, literally Rice Noodles Soup.
While this is a fun story, I'm not sure how accurate this account is as the blog vaguely quoted "internet research" as its information source with no actual source URL provided. Either way, "Bún Thang" is truly a unique name as there is indeed no other brothy dishes in Vietnamese cuisine with the word "Thang" in its name. I can't find much information on the dish in English, but here's a brief description on Vietnamese Wikipedia, and you can check out pictures from Google. Both my parents' sides of the family are originally from the North, so they've been making Bún Thang for at least a few generations. My mom gave me the shortened recipe because neither she or I have the patience or energy to "endure" the traditional recipe ^.^ But don't worry, while this easier recipe is not as complicated, the end result is still a delicious rice noodles soup. It's hubby's favorite noodles soup of all time alongside with Phở.
Here's the recipe for Bún Thang.
- Rice vermicelli, 1 package.
These rice vermicelli are dried and translucent, fine angel hair-like rounded sticks in packages, the same kind they put in the non-fried Vietnamese spring rolls. At home I use exclusively Sinbo Brand, but any brand that says "Jiangxi Rice Vermicelli" will work and your local Asian grocery store should carry at least several different brands. Note that your package may say "rice sticks" or "rice noodles," and if the dried noodles inside are flat and not rounded, you may have gotten the dried Pho noodles instead and what you really need is the rounded rice vermicelli. It's confusing, I know.
Some of the packaging do look very similar, which only adds to the chaos. However, they all say Jiangxi Rice Vermicelli and the dried noodles inside are all fine and rounded. These are what they use to make the non-fried Vietnamese spring rolls they usually serve at any Vietnamese restaurants in the states.
***Picture from Wikipedia.
- Chicken thighs with drumsticks, 4-5 medium thighs, skinless but with bone.
- Eggs, 3-4
- Chả lụa, or Vietnamese ham/sausage, 1 stick. You can find this in the frozen section of the local Asian grocery store. They come in a rounded 6-inch burrito-like bundle wrapped in either aluminum or dark green banana leaf. Just make sure it says pork and not fish or chicken. Do not buy the "pork paste" in rounded white/translucent plastic containers as these are raw ham/sausage meant to be boiled or deep fried in dollops at home.
***Picture from quangcaosanpham.com.
- Ginger, 1 stub, sliced into flat slices lengthwise.
- Lime, several slices, for garnish.
- Scallions, chopped, for garnish.
- Cilantro, several sprigs, for garnish.
- Lettuce, shredded, for garnish.
- Bean sprouts, leave whole, for garnish.
- Mint, shredded, for garnish.
- Thai basil, shredded, for garnish.
- Optional: fresh chile peppers, crushed, for garnish, if you want some spice.
If you want your Bún Thang to be truly authentic, I recommend finding the 2 extra garnishing ingredients below:
- Rau răm, or Vietnamese hot mint, shredded. This herb is an abundant in Southeast Asia but is pretty tricky to find in certain parts of the US of A. I couldn't find it in Jersey at all, searching through several Asian grocery stores. Mean while, there are plenty of it in Colorado where Vietnamese food is much more popular and widely eaten. If you live in Texas or California, congratulations, you've just hit the Vietnamese culinary jackpot and have no reasons (or excuses) to go without your Vietnamese hot mint!
***Picture from Vietnamese Wikipedia.
- Dầu cà cuống, or Southeast Asian giant water bug essence. Just dipping the tip of a toothpick into the essence and then stirring this tiny bit into your bowl is enough to give the soup broth a distinctively spicy and unforgettable fragrant aroma. I know you're thinking bug essence = eww + yuck + gross, but honestly speaking the essence of this insect is what truly makes this noodles soup unique. I would even go as far as to say that one cannot claim he's had authentic Northern Vietnamese Bún Thang until he's had it with the water bug essence. But of course, due to the high culinary demand in Southeast Asia, this bug has become super scarce and the vast majority of the essence sold on the Vietnamese market are mere imitation. The genuine stuff is almost impossible to find and when found would be ridiculously expensive. So see, you don't have to worry about having *real* bug essence in your Bún Thang - you probably won't be able to find it even if you're adventurous! My family has only 1 itty bitty little glass bottle the size of a sample perfume glass vial and my mom treasures it more than her pearls!
- Salt, 1-1.5 teaspoons. You're making a huge stock pot!
- Sugar, 1 teaspoon.
- Black pepper, generous sprinkles.
- Vietnamese fish sauce, for garnish only. DO NOT season your broth with fish sauce or you will be very sorry!
- Heat 1 Tablespoon of oil (I prefer olive) in a stock pot and brown the ginger slices. When the ginger is golden brown, turn off heat and remove pot onto a different eye, let cool.
- Mean while, mix the salt, sugar, and black pepper into a rub and rub it onto both sides of the chicken thighs. Carefully place the chicken thighs on top of the browned ginger slices, marinate for at least half an hour.
- Use this marinating time to prepare (rinse, dry, shred and/or) the scallions, cilantro, herbs, lettuce, and bean sprouts for garnish.
- Once done marinating, reheat the stock pot and fry both sides of the chicken thighs until golden. Remember to move the ginger slices to the top to avoid burning and add more oil if necessary to prevent the chicken sticking to the pot. If you like your broth a darker color (like me), then fry the chicken until golden brown.
- When the chicken thighs reach the desired color, fill the pot with water and cook the chicken thighs thoroughly, usually at least 1-2 hours (hey, I only said this is a shortened recipe, I didn't say it was quick!). Pay very close attention to the broth and skim all foams and excess fat gathering at the top to keep the broth clear and preventing it from turning murky. If the broth is too bland, season it with more salt to taste.
- While the soup is cooking, beat the eggs well with 1 teaspoon of fish sauce. Fry in thin layers on separate pan, then cut into thin strips.
- If you are using Chả lụa, or Vietnamese ham/sausage, use only half a stick and freeze the other half for later use. Slice the half into thin medallions and then further cut into thin strips.
- How do you know when the soup broth is ready? When the meat falls off the bone! Use a pair of cooking chopsticks to pick up the chicken thigh by the drumstick. If you can lift the entire thigh out of the soup intact, the soup's not yet ready. When the chicken thigh falls apart the moment you try to pick it up, the soup is done.
- When soup is done, reduce heat down to simmer, and fish the chicken thighs out of the broth carefully and set aside.
- In a separate pot, bring water to a boil and gently place the dry vermicelli noodles in. Boil for about 3-5 minutes, occasionally stir (be gentle!) to prevent the noodles sticking at the bottom of the pot.
- While the noodles are cooking, quickly debone the chicken. It should be super easy since the meat will fall right off without any effort on your part.
- To test when the vermicellis are done, pick up bunch with your chopstick, then let go slowly until only several strands are left in your [chopsticks'] grasps. Pinch a bit at the end and, well, eat it. If it's still firm or tough at the center, it's not ready. Vermicellis are done when they feels sticky to the touch and melt in your mouth. If you try to pick up a bunch and the vermicellis break, remove from heat at once - they're overcooked and will fall apart becoming mush if you don't strain and rinse with cold water immediately.
- To serve, first spread a handful of fresh bean sprouts at the bottom of the bowl, place the cooked rice vermicelli on top, then arrange the shredded herbs and lettuce, thin strips of fried eggs, Vietnamese ham/sausage, and pieces of chicken meat around the bowl.
- Ladle in the hot soup broth until vermicellis but not all ingredients at top are submerged. Then pinch in the chopped scallions and add a few sprigs of cilantro, squeeze in a slice of lime.
- Add the final touch of undiluted fish sauce, and crush a fresh chile pepper in if you want your noodles spicy.
I couldn't find any Vietnamese ham/sausage here in Japan, so I had to make do with imitation crab meat. I didn't really go with the dish, but better than nothing. And as you can see, I'm also missing a bunch of other herbs too. Oh well, it was still good ^.^