Phở may be Vietnam’s most famous noodle export but ask many a Vietnamese and they’ll tell you that bún riêu cua, a tangy crab- and tomato-based noodle soup, is the dish that evokes grandma’s homecooking.
Ironically, my first taste of bún riêu cua was at a restaurant in Seattle. I was having lunch with my friend Carol and as we perused the menu together she expressed surprise to find it on the menu. “It’s Vietnamese comfort food for me,” she said, explaining that the dish was a staple at home when she was growing up. Her mom would make a huge pot of it in the morning and they’d have it for lunch and dinner!
I smiled as I slapped the menu shut. My mind was made up.
In no time, a big steaming bowl arrived: The reddish broth was thick and tomatoey and chock full of crab bits. I tore up mint and Thai basil leaves and scattered the strips all over, then squirted some lime juice. As I slurped up the rice noodles, I was as happy as a clam.
Being the nosy food writer I am, I asked Carol if her mom would show me how to cook the dish.
A couple of Sundays later, I was at Carol’s mom, Thanh Nguyen’s, watching her go through the motions.
When we finally sat down to eat and I sipped the soup, I knew it couldn’t get any better than this. My second experience far exceeded the former. On that rainy spring afternoon, a bowl of bún riêu cua was all the comfort I needed.
Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (Bún Riêu Cua)
In Vietnam, mud crabs (a type of soft-shell crab) are often caught in rice paddy fields for this dish. To extract the crab “juice” essential to this dish, their top shells are removed and pounded with some salt. Water is then added, and the resulting liquid strained through a sieve. Thanh Nguyen proposes a more modern method–whirling the crabs in a blender and then straining. You can find frozen soft shell crabs at the Asian market, or use Dungeness or blue crab meat instead.
Time: 1 hour
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
10 cups water
1 1/2 pounds pork spare ribs, cut into individual 1-inch pieces (available at Asian butchers)
1 cup dried shrimp, rinsed and ground to a coarse powder in a food processor
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
1 teaspoon ground paprika
4 tomatoes, each cut into 4 wedges then halved crosswise (3 red and one green for crispness)
1/2 pound (1 whole) soft-shell crab, or lump crab meat
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 cup (half a 7-ounce bottle) shrimp paste in soybean oil (see notes below)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
1 pound thin round rice noodles (bún) or rice vermicelli, cooked according to package directions
2 cups (6 ounces) fresh mung bean sprouts
1 cup shredded cabbage or lettuce
1 cup cilantro sprigs
1 cup Vietnamese balm leaves (kinh gioi)
1 cup spearmint leaves
1 jalapeño, cut into rings
Chopped green onions
3 limes, cut into wedges
In a large stockpot, bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat with the pork ribs and dried shrimp. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 2 hours, or until the meat is tender.
In a small skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil. Add the garlic and fry until fragrant, about 15 to 30 seconds. Add the paprika and stir for another 10 seconds. Turn off the heat and add everything to the stockpot.
In the same skillet, stir and cook the tomatoes in the remaining oil over medium heat for 1 minute and add to the stockpot.
In a blender, blend the crab, shells and all, with 1 1/2 cups water for about 15 to 20 seconds until the shells are crushed and the meat is pureed. Strain the juice and add to the stockpot. Add 1 more cup of water to the blender and pulse 2 to 3 times to absorb any remaining flavor. Strain and pour the liquid into the stockpot. Discard the shells and meat. (If using only crab meat, you can add the meat to the soup if desired but be sure to pick out any cartilage.)
Throw out the crab remnants
Mix the tamarind paste with 1/2 cup of warm water and add to the stock.
In a medium bowl, mix the eggs and ground pork with chopsticks or a fork until well combined. Stir in the shrimp paste and mix well. Slowly add the egg and pork mixture to the soup. Do not stir, allowing the meat to cook in clusters for about 8 to 10 minutes.
Sprinkle with fish sauce and salt and stir gently so that the meat clusters remain intact.
Divide the cooked rice noodles among individual bowls. Garnish as desired. Pour 2 cups of hot soup over each bowl of noodles, including one or two pork ribs and some pork clusters.
Shrimp paste in soybean oil is a bottled sauce comprising shrimp, garlic, white pepper, soybean oil, and fish sauce. A staple of Southern Thailand, it can be added to fried rice, noodles, stir-fried vegetables, and seafood dishes. Store up to 6 months refrigerated once opened. Thanh Nguyen uses Pantainorasingh brand available at http://www.importfood.com.
Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi) has a concentrated fragrance and flavor akin to that of lemon balm. The slender serrated leaves have a lavender center. Sold in small plastic bags, they will keep for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator.