A bowl of Num Bo Chok, a Cambodian fermented fish soup with rice vermicelli, sold at Tu Xe Restaurant, District 10, HCMC / PHOTO: GIANG VU
Bún mắm – fermented fish soup with rice vermicelli and fresh herbs – is now known a specialty of the Mekong Delta provinces of Soc Trang and Tra Vinh.
However, it is one of many foods that were imported from Cambodia, modified, and finally became popular staples in southern Vietnam, especially Saigon.
While it was born in the neighboring country as a simple dish mainly made with prahok – fermented fish paste, usually of tiny fish; in Vietnam it is a considerably “upgraded” version with generous toppings – prawns, fish, squid and roasted pork.
That this upgrade has been appreciated by a majority of Ho Chi Minh City residents is reflected in the fact that many restaurants here sell bún mắm or its hot pot version known as lẩu mắm.
However, there is a still part of the population, especially those who used to live in Cambodia and those who are Cambodian-Vietnamese, who prefer the simpler version that is known as Num Bo Chok in the neighboring country.
The minor population’s demand is satisfied by at least one restaurant in Le Hong Phong Market, which is located in District 10 and known for selling foods and ingredients from Cambodia.
Thu, a Cambodian-Vietnamese woman, said she rides her motorbike from her home near Ba Chieu Market, Binh Thanh District, to the market every Sunday, not only to buy things she needs but also to have a bowl of Num Bo Chok at Tu Xe Restaurant.
She said she used to eat the rice vermicelli dish in Cambodia, but feels it was not as good as the one sold at Tu Xe. In that country, the addition of coconut milk in the original version makes it “difficult to eat.”
Thu is not the only customer to love the Tu Xe restaurant, which has remained popular for more than 30 years since it was founded.
A bowl of Num Bo Chok looks attractive with its saffron-colored soup, green Chinese long bean pieces, and slices of white snakehead fillets. The fish is totally free of the “fishy” taste and smell, but still has some sweet tones.
The stall owner, who wanted to be referred to as Nam, said he is particular about slices of fish fillets, saying it must be that of snakeheads caught in rivers, not those bred in farms, or the whole bowl will turn “fishy” when it cools.
He also said that he uses prahok bought from Cambodia to maintain the main flavor, while the addition of finger-roots or Chinese ginger, trái chúc – a kind of citrus fruit that looks similar to lime, and turmeric to not only get rid of the fishiness but also to create a distinctive tone for the dish.
TƯ XÊ'S NUM BO CHOK
Le Hong Phong Market
57/27 Ho Thi Ky Street, Ward 1, District 10, HCMC
Open hours: 6 a.m. – 10 a.m.
Although Num Bo Chok has fewer toppings than bún mắm, its accompanying fresh herbs and vegetables are more varied with different kinds of fennels, water morning glories, banana blossoms, Chinese long beans, water-lilies, and celeries. The dish is also served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce.
Nam said he inherited the restaurant from Tu Xe, a Vietnamese woman who lived in Cambodia for many years before moving back to Saigon in the 1970s and started selling the specialty in Le Hong Phong Market.
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By Giang Vu, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the September 6th issue of our print edition Vietweek)