Vuong Thanh Quan says he only eats the fish vermicelli soup bún cá at his favorite eatery in his hometown in An Giang Province, even though he travels frequently and has tried many different versions of the Vietnamese dish.
“I have been a regular here for a long time. Only this place sells the truest, most genuine bún cá, the signature noodle soup of my town Chau Doc,” said the 39-year-old man.
“The vegetables are so clean and fresh, including beansprout, water spinach, hot mint and điên điển (a local pea plant) flowers. The soup is also unique. It’s rich in flavors and smells. A perfect balance.”
Mrs. Le, owner of the unnamed eatery on the sidewalk of Le Cong Thanh Street near the Chau Doc Market, said she bought the rice vermicelli from a local maker.
“I make the broth from fermented fish, garlic and other ingredients,” she said.
Bún cá is served in a large bowl with rice noodles in the light-yellow soup, topped with slices of snakehead fish perfectly boiled, some prawns and a few slices of crispy roasted pork.
Variations of the soup can also include squid and fried fish cake.
Different kinds of vegetables, normally raw or quicky poached in hot water, are put into the bowl and mixed before the bowl is ready. Minced chilli and ginger fish sauce are optional.
Mrs. Le and her bún cá Châu Đốc eatery in An Giang Province. Photo: Minh Hung
Although bún cá is common in Vietnam’s central coastal and Mekong Delta provinces – where it can also be called bún mắm (fermented fish soup), the version in Chau Doc is arguably one of the best and is loved by many for its unique taste.
Uncle Tu, Le’s relative who helps her at the eatery, said the shop opened more than 15 years ago.
“Many people from Ho Chi Minh City often eat here. They often travel in large groups on buses,” he said.
The magic root
Le lowered her voice when being asked if she added ngải bún (autumn crocus) root during cooking. She said "yes" before giving a quick glance around, checking if anyone had heard the answer.
Other bún cá restaurants often deny the fact that the root is part of the recipe, due to strange and interesting myths linked to the plant.
Roots of ngải bún (autumn crocus). Photo: Minh Hung
Tran Thi Hong, a woman from Long An Province, recently grew autumn crocus at a hidden corner in her garden as she planned to open a bún cá restaurant.
“Never tell anyone that I grow this plant or they will be too afraid to visit my restaurant,” she said.
The root of the plant, which provides a mild scent and eliminates the fishy smell of bún cá, is believed by many to have supernatural power, including the ability to make guests returning again and again.
Rumor has it that if the plant is kept inside a restaurant, its customers will keep coming back. Using it in cooking will have an even stronger effect.
Bay Binh, a 62-year-old man in An Giang Province, said the fears might have emerged through numerous stories about how the autumn crocus, with its supernatural power, can be used and "trained" for good luck in business and social relations.
But Quan, the regular patron at Mrs Le's noodle shop, said he does not believe in any of this magical power.
“It beats the fishy smell and offers a nice taste. Customers can return to a certain restaurant again, but just because the bún cá there is good. That’s all.”
|Bún cá Châu Đốc in Ho Chi Minh City:
Roadside eatery near the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Vo Thi Sau streets in Tan Dinh Ward, District 1.
The eatery opens from 7 a.m to 10 p.m.
Where to buy ingredients to cook bún cá:
Ingredients, including the autumn rocus root, can be bought at the Ho Thi Ky Market in Ho Chi Minh City's District 10.