Bún chả cá. Sort of.
I’ve never associated fresh dill with South East Asian countries. It’s always seemed more of a Scandinavian thing! Turns out that dill is used in Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese cuisines too. This weekend I attempted a simplified play on bún chả cá, a Vietnamese fish noodle soup served topped with fresh dill. My friend and temporary housemate Loulou was my willing guinea pig.
A tomato and tamarind based soup with fish, Vietnamese vegetables and rice vermicelli, this combines many different textures and flavours. Finely sliced fresh mint and shiso leaf (perilla) are added to taste at the table. Disclaimer: I’m not Vietnamese so I make absolutely no claims to authenticity. My understanding is that the chả in bún chả cá means fish so that’s an essential ingredient. The restaurant also include dill infused fish paste and betal wrapped minced pork but I excluded these from my simple homemade version.
Now I’ve got an embarrassing confession to make. Also included in the soup is a mysterious vegetable, the name of which sadly eludes me. A long green vegetable with purple tinged stalks, I’d be very grateful for any leads! Served with the soup at the restaurant where I first encountered this dish, it has a very distinctive and unusual flavour that despite having eaten many times, I find hard to describe. It tastes like no other vegetable/herb I’ve ever eaten. Only the stalks are served with the soup so I’m not even sure if the leaves are edible.
A friend once pointed the vegetable out for me at the Asian supermarket so I could buy it for myself, although I didn’t catch the name and I never see her anymore. I vaguely remember that its name started with the letter ‘p’. Not widely sold, I’ve only ever spied it at a single Asian grocery store out of the eight near my workplace. On Saturday, I asked the lady at the shop what it was called and she paused and then waved her hand dismissively saying it had ‘no name’. Have I googled ‘Vietnamese vegetables’? Why, yes I have and to no avail.
Oh internet, why have you forsaken me?
Otherwise, try to track down elephant ear stalks, which I’ve also had in this soup too. Spongy and relatively tasteless, elephant ears seem to more about texture than anything else although they soak up other flavours very well. From my rather inadequate research, fresh pineapple is an ingredient that other recipes sometimes include and I’d probably use it if I wasn’t able to get my hands on any tamarind. Since it’s not a regular ingredient of mine, I used tamarind paste rather than the fresh variety. I added the tamarind a single teaspoon at a time, swirling in the paste and tasting as I went until I was happy with the level of astringency. The canned tomatoes give a kind of acidity and intensity that I like but fresh tomatoes would be good for a milder result.
Any firm white fish should do but please promise me that you don’t overcook it. Dry, overcooked fish tastes of nothing but abject sadness. I seasoned plain flour with half a teaspoon of the chilli-lime salt that I made a while back and then dusted the pieces of fish with it before cooking in a non-stick frying pan with a teeny bit of oil. I took it out of the pan just before it was fully cooked as the residual heat would finish it off while it rested. The restaurant version fries the fish but I try to avoid any kind of deep frying at home since I possess a tiny kitchen. I bought some fried triangles of fresh tofu to add additional texture and interest, throwing in a few to warm through just before serving.
Happily, Loulou gave it the thumbs up so I’m sharing my bastardised version of bún chả cá with you too. If you’ve only ever tried pho or bun bo hue, maybe it’s time to try a different Vietnamese-style noodle soup.
Start cooking: 40 minutes before eating
Feeds: Three hungry people
Jibuyabu’s inauthentic bún chả cá
- 2 litres x chicken or pork stock
- 300 grams x firm fleshed white fish
- 200 grams x rice vermicelli noodles
- 300 grams x fried tofu triangles (not tofu puffs)
- 150 grams x canned tomatoes, either whole or chopped
- Tamarind paste – to taste
- Mysterious vegetable/elephant ears stalks – substitute with kang kong (aka morning glory)
- 1/3 cup x plain flour
- Sprigs x fresh dill – to taste
- Salt, to taste
- Fresh mint and shiso leaf (perilla) to serve
- Heat up the chicken/pork stock in a medium sized pot.
- If using whole canned tomatoes, roughly chop them into small pieces. Add the tomato to the stock and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
- Boil two litres of water in a separate pot and cook the rice vermicelli until softened and pliable – it should take about a couple of minutes. Drain and then divide into individual serving bowls.
- Swirl a teaspoon of tamarind paste into the stock and then taste. Add more if desired, a teaspoon at a time until it’s slightly milder than desired. The flavour will intensify a little over time. Let the stock continue to simmer covered for a further 10 minutes as you cook the fish.
- Mix the plain flour with 1/2 a teaspoon of salt on a plate. Cut the fish into two inch pieces and then dust each piece lightly in the flour mixture.
- Heat up a large non-stick frying pan with 2 teaspoons of neutral vegetable oil over medium heat. Cook the pieces of fish, making sure not to crowd the pan. Cook the fish in two batches if needed. Drain on a paper towel once just cooked.
- Divide the cooked fish pieces amongst each serving.
- Test the seasoning of the soup and add salt to taste. It should be slightly more salty than you think as it will season the plain noodles.
- Finely slice the shiso and mint leaves and place into a small serving bowl.
- Slide the fried tofu into the soup. If using elephant ears or kang kong, add the vegetables in the soup at the same time to heat through for 3 minutes. Otherwise, cut the stalk of the mysterious vegetable into two inch length pieces and add raw to each individual serving.
- Ladle out the soup into each bowl and snip a few sprigs of fresh dill leaves on top.
- Let each person add sliced shiso/mint to their own serve.