Friday, August 24, 2007

Bún Bò Huê - A Fiery Bowl of Red

Oh, how I love soups.

That seems to be a simple statement, but the word "soup" probably conjures up a different image for me than it does for you.


I was brought up with the "Campbell Soup" model of soup in my life. My mother wasn't a good cook, and her idea of soup was to take a can, and some water or milk, and heat gently. If you were to ask me my favorite soup, it would almost definitely have to be beef barley: I preferred soups where the meat does most of the talking, as opposed to the ones where the vegetables have the last word.

Moving up to New England, I learned to love clam chowder (the New England variety). From there, I entered a Renaissance of "cream soups" (cream of mushroom, cream of celery, etc.) and worked to perfect my ability to create a bunch of cream soups.

Well, the fact that I'm lactose intolerant can hint at where my cream soup madness ended up. I still love clam chowder and cream of mushroom soups, and count them as my favorites to this day, as long as we are talking about soups that I'll have once or twice a year (and damn the torpedoes when it happens!).

Then I discovered Vietnamese soups.

I can wax on and on about Vietnamese soups, but I think it should suffice it to say that the Vietnamese are to soups what Picasso is to canvas.

I learned about Phó when I was working in Boston. It's basically a soup with a complicated broth over noodles served with fresh meat. It's simple, it's disarming, and--most important--it's delicious.

One day when I was sitting at a Vietnamese restaurant in Boston's "China Town," a co-worker suggested that I'd like a different soup, called "Bún Bò Huê." It wasn't on the menu, but was listed on a piece of paper on the wall written with most the vowels having various accents. I took the bait. I ordered the soup, and was treated to what I can easily say is my favorite soup of all time. It's spicy-red in color (and taste), with a pungent taste of fish, pork, and beef, served with spaghetti-like noodles and even some pig's feet.

I know that it's difficult to describe in words the ecstasy that I had in tasting this wondrous soup for the first (and then second, third, and umpteenth) time, so I won't bother. Instead, I'll simply call it my favorite soup. It was very spicy and delicious, and I could easily find it in Boston's China Town... until that restaurant closed its doors.

That was back in the early 1990s. I visited many other Asian restaurants, but never found Bún Bò Huê on the menus anywhere.

Phó, on the other hand, was easy to find. Lowell, Massachusetts is a place where you can find many Southeast Asian restaurants, and Phó is pretty popular at most of those places.

Earlier this year, I went to a Vietnamese restaurant that I have frequented a few times, and found it was under new management and under a new name, called "Pho Da Lat." The name implied that they had Phó, and I like that soup, so I decided to give the new place a try.

On the menu, item #73 reads "Bun Bo Hue," (interestingly, without the accents!) with the sub-title that it was the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. Do you think I hesitated for a moment? No! I ordered the soup, and was rewarded with that wonderful taste that I remembered from fifteen years ago.

I've been there quite a few times since (and now make it a regular weekly visit), and the Bún Bò Huê has been great every time.

On Google, you can find recipes for this soup. My wife isn't a fan of spicy soups, so I've never tried making it at home. I may do so, though, and if I do, I promise to share the recipe here.

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