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Published: September 30th 2017
Bun Bo Hue ...
... so beautifully-fragrant with lemongrass and herbs, this was a rare treat - bun bo hue isn't widely available and Calgary, and we've always wondered how the real thing should be. Now, without a frame of reference, it's hard to know how authentic this version was, since bun bo hue actually means "soup from Hue", a city nearly 1000 km away from HCMC. But we have to believe that HCMC, one of the culinary capitals of Vietnam where a good cross-section of Vietnamese cuisine is available, has to offer up a decent version. Again, the noodles were softer than we like, but it was nice to try this type, more worm-like in shape than the typical pho rice noodles. The beef slices and brisket were a bit tough, but that broth ... so good, and it got even better when we added our own house chili paste and herbs.
Geo: 10.7592, 106.662
Ramen is the gold standard of Asian soup noodles for us, but we've always held a soft spot in our hearts for the venerable Vietnamese bowl of pho. These two versions of soup noodles can't be any more different - pho noodles are typically rice-based and not wheat-based, and ramen toppings are seemingly more varied and complex. Ramen doesn't make use of the fresh herbs that pho does, and its broth is far richer and thicker with animal fat. In a way, it's far easier to appreciate ramen than pho, because ramen's characteristics are much more pronounced.
I would never suggest that ramen is better than pho or vice versa, but one truth is clear - pho is far more subtle in its flavours, and requires a different perspective to appreciate. Pho is never really about the noodles or the toppings, it's always about the broth. The Holy Grail-type of experience that pho lovers search for, but rarely find outside of Vietnam, is that simple yet flavourful broth. It's usually crystal clear, but at the majority of pho joints in North America, at the end of the meal, a cloudy sediment often settles into the bottom of the bowl
A Plethora of Fresh Herbs ...
... we are big fans of banana blossom, but never have we had it with Vietnamese soup! While we had avoided fresh vegetables and herbs with our prior bowl of pho, due to unfounded fears of contaminated water, we finally gave in and dumped in whatever we felt like. It really elevated the bun bo hue to a whole new level, adding all sorts of subtle flavours and nuances to the dish.
- not in Vietnam!
A frequent criticism of pho in Vietnam is the quality of beef - while flavourful, it is fairly tough by North American standards, which is common in developing nations that usually work their animals a great deal before slaughtering for food. The noodles have also been softer than the al dente ones we prefer, but with such phenomenal broth, who cares? The Vietnamese have perfected the art of broth, and the amount of time required to properly make it is often a surprise to people - recipes may vary, but twelve hours seems to be the established duration for gently simmering the beef bones essential to good pho, with some recipes calling for up to 24 hours!
Great Vietnamese broth is all about the purity, which involves par boiling the bones to remove impurities, and for the first few hours, regular skimming of any scum that rises to the top. There is a real love and passion that goes into making the broth, because quite frankly, no one would put that much time or effort into it otherwise. The results are undeniable, and the moment that you first taste an exceptional spoonful of broth in Vietnam
is an unforgettable one. Don't get me wrong - we've had pho of greatly varying quality in Vietnam, so they aren't all good. But when you have that one sublime bowl of pho ... you can almost hear angels singing, riding their celestial scooters across the sky ...
The beauty of broth in Vietnam is that it goes far beyond pho - bun bo hue, canh chua tom, sup cua ... these are just a few of the soups we've had the pleasure of sampling in Vietnam, and there are many more varieties that we'd never be able to try. There simply isn't enough time to try the vast range of soup in Vietnam, because there are so many regional dishes - you'd probably have to spend months traveling to all corners of the nation before you can claim to have tried it all.
It's funny that such amazing soup is normally found in the most suspect of places - a lady hauling a big pot to a spot on a sidewalk, scruffy-looking restaurants, or makeshift sidewalk cafes. Because really - art as beautiful as this? It should be on display inside of a museum!
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