The most ugly words around these days are “domoic acid.” In fact, it almost sounds like demonic. Domoic acid is the toxin found in Dungeness crabs around the San Francisco Bay Area, and it has literally obliterated this year’s crab hunting season.
So while we all wallow over not having the sweet Dungeness crab meat to eat, I’ve found myself finding solace in a bowl of bun rieu. This Vietnamese crab soup noodle dish is one of my favorite alternatives to the ubiquitous pho that most people order.
Pho soup noodles often highlight beef or beef parts. So when I’m looking for something lighter, I zero in on bun rieu. Not only is it primarily seafood base (there is meat in the form of ground pork), it has a unique tomato soup base, giving it a lovely red color.
Bun rieu (pronounced “bone real”) has a few varieties such as bun rieu oc (which highlights escargot), but I go with the crab and shrimp version of bun rieu cua. Interestingly enough, most times the dish is made with pounded crab, so you don’t really need a lot of the meaty crab flesh, just the essence that you can often get in the can.
For my version, I used the canned “minced crab in spices” but I did add some fresh crab for good measure. Right now we’re able to buy Dungeness crab from Oregon, which is what I used.
Another major component to this soup dish is the broth. While you might think the broth is seafood base since it highlights crab, the broth traditionally used is actually pork bone broth because Vietnamese love their pigs. I could have made my own pork broth by buying pork bones from the butcher, but I wanted to make this soup this past weekend and didn’t have time to make the broth so I bought it from my local gourmet butcher that offers a variety of animal broths.
And one more note about how I eat my bun rieu … I do not use the traditional rice vermicelli noodles. I know! I’m so unauthentic. But even when I’m at a Vietnamese restaurant, I always ask to substitute the vermicelli noodles (which I find too round or absorbent of the soup) with pho noodles, which are flatter. I find pho noodles, which are still made from rice flour, have more chew or elasticity. So that’s what I like to eat in my bun rieu, but you can go with the traditional rice vermicelli noodles.
While this was an easy dish to make, it was a lot of work just gathering the ingredients and prepping them. But on a cold winter’s night, there’s nothing better than this sweet tomato soup noodle dish with all the brininess of crab. Enjoy!
Bun Rieu Cua or Vietnamese Crab Rice Vermicelli Soup Noodles
Makes 4 to 5 servings
1 packet rice vermicelli noodles (or pho noodles if you’re like me)
12 fried tofu
6 to 8 large prawns or shrimp, shell removed and deveined
Ingredients for the broth:
4-5 cups of pork broth
1 t fine shrimp sauce (known as mau tom)
1 t tamarind soup mix
2 ripe tomatoes, quartered
1 T fish sauce
1 T annatto oil (see below to make your own)
Ingredients for the rieu:
1/4 lb. ground pork
1/4 lb. lump crab meat (optional), preserve a few large pieces for garnishing
5.6 oz. can of minced crab meat in spices
1/2 T fish sauce
1 t sugar
1/2 t ground white pepper
1 T chopped dried shrimp
1/2 T chopped shallots
Ingredients to serve on the side:
Fresh perilla or mint
Water spinach or rau muong
sliced jalapeno pepper
Start by soaking the tablespoon of dried shrimp (these are sold in the dry goods area of Asian stores, or sometimes at the Chinese herbal shops). After you soak them, you can throw the water in with your broth to get that briny flavor.
To make the annatto oil, buy the annatto seeds (also known as achiote seeds in the Mexican aisle) and add 1 tablespoon to a quarter cup of olive oil in a small pot on medium heat. Once the oil starts to bubble around the edge of the seeds, remove from heat and let sit for two minutes. Then strain the seeds from the oil and set aside. I highly recommend going through this process to get that really nice red color for your bun rieu.
The fried tofu, which looks like golden tofu pockets and found often in the refrigerated section of Asian grocery stores, should be cleaned by placing them in a bowl and adding boiling water over them. Pour out the hot water and then rinse with cold water. When the tofu feels cool enough to touch, squeeze out the excess water. My mom makes me do this because she says it helps get the grease out of the tofu. Set aside.
In a large pot of boiling water, cook the rice noodles per the instructions on the package. Drain and rinse and then set aside.
Make your broth by adding the pork stock, shrimp sauce, tamarind soup mix and fish sauce into a large pot. Let simmer for about 30 minutes. Near the end, add the tomatoes. (The tomatoes go near the end so they don’t totally fall apart in the cooking process; if you prefer mushy tomatoes in smaller bits, then you can add them from the beginning.) Be sure to taste the broth and see if you need to adjust the seasoning by either adding more fish sauce (for savoriness) or tamarind soup mix (for more tartness).
As the broth simmers, make the rieu. In a medium size bowl, combine the ground pork, lump crab meat, can of minced crab meat in spices, pepper, sugar, fish sauce, shallots, chopped dried shrimp and eggs. When your broth is ready, bring the pot to a boil and then use a ladle to scoop in your pork-crab-egg mixture. Toss in your tofu and shrimp. Turn down the heat to medium or medium high.
Your bun rieu will be ready when the shrimp turns pink and the pork-crab mixture (known as the rieu) floats to the top. About 8-10 minutes. Finish by drizzling the annatto oil into your broth.
Ladle the soup over bowls with the cooked rice noodles inside. Serve with the fresh herbs.
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