A true Vietnamese meal is incomplete without rice, to put it mildly. In their daily meals, the Vietnamese nearly always keep a bowl of steamed rice close by the table as they dine on, say, some canh (vegetable soup) and món ăn mặn with pork, fish, tofu...
But on special occasions or simply for a change or when the weather is hot, they like to do more with their rice than just steam the simple grain.
Noodles in the form of the vermicelli-like bún, the northern favorite phở, or perhaps some hủ tiếu or mì make a welcome change from plain rice.
Bún also makes for a good light breakfast, lunch or dinner. When one wakes up from a pleasant dream and the taste of dinner is still lingering, the thought of plain rice (again!) for Sunday breakfast can induce yawns of boredom. That’s where bún, phở, hủ tiếu and such come into their own.
Like phở and hủ tiếu, a bún meal is packed full of protein, vegetables and herbs to kick-start the day. Usually it’s served hot, though there are exceptions.
Being made from rice, bún is fresh, light and easy to combine with other ingredients to create a satisfying meal that doesn’t sit on the stomach.
There are dozens of popular bún recipes in Vietnam, and there is no corner of the land where bún is shunned.
To give some examples, bún chả features marinated grilled pork, herbs and sweet and sour sauce, bún đậu mắm tôm is characterized by its fried tofu, herbs and shrimp sauce mixed with lime, while bún cua involves dipping the noodles into a bowl of freshwater crab soup.
Then there’s bún măng vịt with its duck soup and young bamboo shoots, bún nem with fried spring rolls, and bún sườn with pork chops and tomato or sour sấu in the northern style.
In most every bún dish is some combination of thin noodles, duck or freshwater crab or perhaps some other soup, snails now and then, and grilled or fried marinated pork, spring rolls, and tofu along with fresh herbs and either fish sauce or sweet & sour sauce.
The range of bún recipes goes from the simple and cheap like bún đậu mắm tôm to the sophisticated and expensive (and time consuming) like bún thang or bún nem cua, the latter with fried crab spring rolls.
Bún is for everybody and is the first thing that comes to her mind when a Vietnamese woman is preparing a meal for newly arrived guests or for when the weather is hot and unpleasant.
For a budget-minded mother in a small town, the choice might be bún đậu mắm tôm to feed her children in the summer holidays for a change of taste.
In the city, a modern mom can buy bún and pork chops in the morning. Then at lunchtime her high-school daughter just home from class can cook pork-chop soup with spring onion, tomato or sấu. And so another delicious meal is ready.
For a young woman entertaining her friends on a long weekend, it might be bún chả or bún nem.
Bún combinations are natural and fitting. With its neutral taste and color, with its modest demeanor as it were, bún just about goes with anything similarly light.
Compared to the spring rolls, fish soup and pork, the noodles themselves might take a back seat as far as taste goes, but bún is irreplaceable. It is the foundation of the dish, that essential ingredient that makes everybody come back for more.
It goes without saying that the noodles must be fresh when the cooking begins. Their size varies, and sometimes they come out of their wrapping a little stuck together. What’s important is that they be soft, smooth and white, and not have the sour taste that betrays a day-old origin (or worse).
It takes time to make bún from scratch, which is why most people get theirs at the market.
For the fastidious cook, the long process begins with soaking good rice in water overnight. Then the rice is ground into powder in the same water, and filtered to extract the unwanted sour water. What remains is kneaded to make rice starch.
When the starchy rice is ready, it is pressed into the long, tubular bún moulds, from where the newly created vermicelli drops into a pot of hot water. Finally, the rice strings are removed from the pot and placed in cool drinking water before being put into a bamboo basket ready for market.
Bún is certainly more expensive than plain rice, but even in hard times rural dwellers make sure they have some as one of life’s little luxuries.
Back when the Vietnamese had little money to spend on special treats like bún, they would often get some in exchange for rice instead of cash. At that time, it was common to see bún vendors cycling around the towns and countryside carrying a basket of fresh noodles behind them.
“Đổi bún đây, đổi bún đây?” (“Who wants to trade rice for fresh bún?”) the vendor would cry as he or she passed through town and village to eke out a living from this modest business. Children would stop what they were doing and squeal with delight upon hearing the magical words “doi bun.”
To keep the bún fresh on his long journey, the vendor kept it well wrapped in a covered bamboo basket. As his customers looked on, he carefully unfolded the outer wrapping of old fabric then the protective green banana leaf to reveal the white bún underneath.
Bún can be found in restaurants all over Vietnam. In Hanoi, it’s on the menu at sidewalk cafés and fancy hotels. In downtown Ho Chi Minh City, there are restaurants that specialize in different kinds of bún, for example Bun Ta at 136 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street and Ngon at 160 Pasteur Street, both in District 1.
If you love rice, a stylish bowl of bún with its wealth of tasty ingredients can make your day.