The estuary of rice noodle soups
VietNamNet Bridge – There is no Vietnamese cuisine without rice noodles.
From the humblest nomadic street food vendor and street food stall to the fanciest restaurant you can imagine, if the eatery serves Vietnamese food, it serves rice noodles, mostly as soup.
Double treat: A bowl of bun ca in Hai Phong has two kinds of fried fish. —VNS Photo Hong Van
And when it comes to rice noodle soups, almost every Vietnamese can be said to be a gourmet, able to explain at length why one kind of soup is better at one place, and which ingredient makes a bowl different and more satisfying than another.
It is not surprising then, that the aroma and taste of a bowl of noodle soup differ by region, not just because of ingredients particular to that place, also because the preparation differs.
So what makes a bun ca (rice noodle soup with fish) special in the northern port city of Hai Phong is the clever combination of seafood and river-food.
Any bun dish is a combination of noodles, broth and meat. If this sounds simple, it is. But to make the dish really tasty, the cook has to be meticulous with the choice of ingredients, the processing and cooking.
There are three localities that are famous for their bun ca in Viet Nam – Thai Binh, Da Nang and Hai Phong.
In the northern province of Thai Binh, the fish used is the climbing perch fish, which is natural to the place. Fish slices are marinated with seasonings and stir-fried till it becomes brownish yellow, and then put on top of the noodle soup.
In the central city of Da Nang, the “topping” is the crunchy and tasty cha ca (fried minced fish).
Bit of both
Cooks in Hai Phong use both fried fish and cha ca (fried minced fish) in their bun ca.
However, the cha ca in Hai Phong is thinner, a bit chewier than that in Da Nang and not as crunchy.
In Hai Phong, the cha ca is made with mackerel. The fillet is ground, and dill, pepper and turmeric powder added to it. The mixture is then flattened out into small palm-sized patties which are deep-fried till they turn yellow.
“The more meticulous cooks still grind the fish by hand to make sure it is done just right,” said Nguyen Thi Binh, a Hai Phong native.
For the fried fish, “mrigal carp fish or grass carp is preferred as they don’t have the ‘fishy’ smell of sea fish, and their flesh is fresh and juicy, very suitable for noodle soup,” said Bính.
The fried fish and fried minced fish pieces are dipped for an instant in boiling water before they are placed on top of the white noodle in the broth which has the sour taste of tamarind.
“And you will miss an important part of Hai Phong cuisine if you do not add chilli sauce in the soup,” said Binh.
The bun ca of Hai Phong is also known as bun ca cay (spicy noodle soup with fish) and served with fermented bamboo shoots.
Although it seems a counter-intuitive dish to have in the scorching heat of a harsh summer, the lau cua (crab hotpot) is definitely worth a try when you are in the port city.
The hotpot never fails to impress diners with its broth, which has a thick texture and the reddish-yellow colour of crab meat and tomato. And they also fall for the dish at the very first sip of the broth, which carries the natural sweet taste of crab meat and has a pleasant aroma.
The crab hotpot is also accompanied by a generous portions of cha ca, the Hai Phong specialty, tofu, beef, pork rib, gio (minced pork ball), long trang (pig’s small intestine) and vegetables like banana’s flower and water spinach.
Different varieties of noodles, vermicelli or banh da (brown flat rice noodle made in Hai Phong), a signature ingredient of the port city, is also served with the crab hotpot.
Served hot: Broth is poured into the mixture of rice, noodles, fried fish and fried minced fish. —VNS Photo Hong Van
Appetizing hues: The crab hotpot grabs the attention of diners with its colourful broth. —Photo momkitty.com
Bun ca is served at:
66 Le Loi Street.
21 Tran Phu Street.
193 Van Cao Street.
72 Le Lai Street.
87 Nui Truc Street.
164 O Cho Dua Street.
77 Duong Thanh Street.
42 Hang Dau Street.
Lau cua can be found at :
188 Van Cao Street
36 Nguyen Hong Street