Vietnamese Spicy Beef Noodle Soup (Bun Bo Hue)

Vicky Pham

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When we think of Vietnamese food, people usually think of Phở, a very popular Vietnamese noodle soup made from either beef (Phở Bò) or chicken (Phở Gà). But have you heard of its fiery cousin, Bún Bò Huế?

Bún Bò Huế isn’t quite as popular as Phở but I think it’s slowly getting into the spotlight as one of the tastiest Vietnamese noodle soup dishes.

Bún is noodles, Bò is beef, and Huế is a city in Central Vietnam, also the former capital of Vietnam, from which it originated. Despite its name, Bún Bò Huế is also made from pork bones. This can cause a lot of confusion on a menu, especially if you don’t eat pork.

The broth for Bún Bò Huế is prepared by slowly simmering various types of beef and pork bones (ox tail, beef shank, pork neck bones, pork feet, and pork knuckles/ham hocks) and loads of lemongrass.

The fiery spices are made up of frying together shallots, lemongrass, garlic, red pepper powder, and fresh chilies in neutral oil. Sometimes ground annatto seed or the use of annatto oil instead of neutral oil is used for a more vibrant red color.

For the stock, I also added pineapples. This is something I learned from watching Anthony Bourdains’ No Reservation (RIP Mr. Bourdain) when he interviewed The Lunch Lady in Vietnam. She added a very ripe pineapple to her stock. The addition of pineapple not only tenderizes the meat but also gives the broth a very delightful fruity and citrusy flavor. This tip really took my broth to a whole new level!

If you don’t have fresh pineapples, you can use canned pineapples. I used a small can and used both the pineapples and all its juices. It works just as well.

To assemble this bowl of heavenly goodness, thick round rice noodles are added to a bowl and then topped with slices of brisket, pieces of ham hocks, and cubes of congealed pig’s blood. The savory broth is ladled on top of the rice noodles. The bowl is finished with a garnish of green onions, cilantro, and/or thinly sliced white onions. The bowl is served alongside a vegetable platter of shredded white and purple cabbage, banana blossoms, bean sprouts, mint leaves, and other Vietnamese herbs. Sometimes a small bowl of fermented shrimp (mắm ruốc) and additional sate sauce on the side for further customization.

Tip to remember. If you are ever in the city of Hue in Central Vietnam, this noodle soup dish is called Bun Bo, not Bun Bo Hue. If you are outside of Hue and its surrounding cities, then the dish is referred to as Bun Ho Hue.

Ingredients

Bones/Meat

  • 2 lbs pork knuckles
  • 1-½ lbs boneless beef shank
  • 1-½ lbs boneless pork shank
  • ½ lb beef tendon

Stock

  • 5 quarts water
  • 4 stalks lemongrass (tender bottom parts only)
  • 10 shallots or 1 large onion
  • 1 large chunk ginger
  • A quarter of very ripe pineapple or 1 small can of pineapple and all its juices

Stock Seasoning

  • 1 tablespoon chicken or mushroom bouillon powder
  • 1-½ tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1-½ tablespoons sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons fermented shrimp paste (mắm ruốc or mắm tôm)
  • 30 grams rock sugar

Vietnamese Chili Sauce (Sate)

  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 large shallot (finely diced)
  • 2 stalks lemongrass (finely diced bottom tender stalk only)
  • 3 garlic cloves (finely diced)
  • Fresh chilies (as much as you like)
  • 3 tablespoons Bun Bo Hue seasoning premix
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

Noodles, Garnishes, Other Meaty Toppings

  • 2 lbs package dried extra-large rice vermicelli (usually labeled Bun Bo Hue noodles)
  • 1 stick Vietnamese ham (chả lụa/giò lụa)
  • Cooked pork blood
  • Green onions (thinly sliced)
  • Cilantro (thinly sliced)
  • Lemon/lime wedges

Optional Side Vegetables

  • Bean sprouts
  • Banana blossom (thinly slice)
  • White/purple cabbage (thinly slice)
  • Mint leaves

Perform

  1. Clean the bones and meat: To a large stockpot, add knuckles, boneless shanks and tendon. Add water to cover and bring the pot to a boil. When the pot reaches a rolling boil and impurities float to the top (about 5-7 minutes after boiling), turn off the heat. Place a colander in the sink and drain the contents of the pot into the colander. Thoroughly rinse bones/meat under cold running water and drain dry. Wrap up boneless pork shank into a tight bundle with twine for easier slicing later.
  2. Wash the used pot thoroughly and return it to the stove. Transfer parboiled bones/meat to the pot and fill with 5 quarts of water. Smash the lemongrass stalks and tie them with twine. Peel the shallots/onions and slice the ginger into thick coins. All all to the stockpot. Bring the pot to a boil then lower heat to cook on a low simmer, covered, for 2 hours. Occasionally skim the surface of the stock to keep it clear.
  3. After one hour of cooking, pork knuckles should be done first. Check the knuckles for doneness by piercing it with a chopstick. When chopstick pierces through easily without resistance, knuckles are done. Remove and set aside. After 1-½ hours, beef and pork shanks should be done too. Check for doneness by piercing them with a chopstick. If there is no resistance and water runs clear, shanks are done. Remove and set aside with the knuckles. Beef tendons will cook the longest (about 2 hours). Once done, transfer tendon, shanks, and knuckles to the refrigerator to cool. For quicker cooling, place them in an iced bath. Chilling will firm up the meat and make it easier for slicing. Once chilled, cut knuckles into bite-size pieces if they are too big, and thinly sliced the shanks and tendon. Set everything aside as meaty toppings.
  4. Remove all remaining solids (onions/shallots, ginger, lemongrass, and pineapple) from the stockpot. Season stock with chicken stock powder, fish sauce, sea salt, rock sugar, and fermented shrimp paste. Add a little at a time to your liking. For the fermented shrimp paste, it's best to whisk it together with a bit of stock water to prevent clumps then pour it into the stockpot.
  5. Sate sauce: In a small saucepan, heat up vegetable oil on medium-low heat. Add shallots and lemongrass. Pan fry for 10 seconds or until fragrant. Add garlic, your desired amount of chili peppers, and Bun Bo Hue seasoning packet next. Pan fry for 5 seconds then turn off the heat to prevent burning. If you can’t find Bún Bò Huế seasoning powder, substitute with paprika or similar red pepper powder. Season with fish sauce and sugar. Add sate sauce to the stock. For those with children or anyone who can't handle spicy food, divide the stock before adding sate sauce, or simply add sate sauce to individual bowls instead.
  6. Cook the noodles for 20 minutes or until soft (disregard package instructions as I typically find that it's never long enough). Place a colander in the sink and drain noodles into the colander. Rinse with cold water to prevent sticking.
  7. To assemble, place a handful of noodles into a bowl. Add desired amount of sliced boneless shanks, pork knuckles/hocks, sliced Vietnamese ham (Cha Lua/Gio Lua) and pork blood cubes (if using). Ladle in hot broth. Garnish with sliced green onions and cilantro. Serve with a platter of fresh vegetables and lime/lemon wedges. You can also serve with a small bowl of shrimp paste and sate sauce on the side for further individual customizations.

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