Soup gets creative with five pork pastes

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 A bowl of bun moc sold at Thanh Mai Restaurant, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City / PHOTO: TAN NHAN

Among the myriad bun (rice vermicelli) dishes that dot Vietnamese cuisine, soups like bun bo spicy beef rice vermicelli soup from the former capital of Hue -- are well known among locals as well as foreigners.

A lesser known soup (at least among foreigners) is bun moc.

However, when you happen to be in Vietnam, a bowl of bun moc is not to be missed. This dish is evidence of how a dish can be made to look so rich, even though it is cooked mainly with just two main ingredients: pork and pork paste. This dish will take your admiration for Vietnamese cuisine's ingenuity even higher.

The broth for bun moc is made by stewing pig bones and pork ribs for a certain amount of time so that it is sweet and almost transparent.

The toppings consist of the stewed pork ribs and five kinds of pork paste.

First comes cha lua in which pork paste is wrapped in banana leaves into a cylindrical shape and boiled. It is often known as Vietnamese pork roll or Vietnamese ham.

Second is cha que which is almost similar to cha lua, but cinnamon powder is added to the paste and fried. 

Then, pork paste is made into three kinds of balls: cha chien (deep-fried pork paste balls); cha la (pork paste balls wrapped in banana leaves and steamed); and moc (pork paste balls with shredded spring onion and shiitake mushroom and pepper powder, and then cooked in the broth).

Even though only one of the toppings is called moc, it is also used collectively for all the pastes, hence the dish's name. But this is just one version.

Some people claim that the dish's name comes from its birthplace, Moc Village, which is now located in Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi.

The ambiguity about its name has not prevented the dish from gaining popularity in all regions of the country.

In Ho Chi Minh City, where locals are often said to be the most open-minded in the country about food and drink, bun moc has indeed become a part of the local cuisine. It is sold almost everywhere, from fancy restaurants along busy streets to stalls tucked away in small alleys, with varied tastes and toppings.

To have a bowl of bun moc with all the original toppings, I recommend Thanh Mai Restaurant at the crossroad of Truong Dinh and Nguyen An Ninh streets, close to the Ben Thanh Market. One of the city's most famous sellers, the restaurant is crowded from when it opens early in the morning till it closes early in the afternoon. 

BÚN MỌC THANH MAI

14 Truong Dinh St., Ben Thanh Ward, District 1

Open hours: 4:30 a.m. 2 p.m.

Prices: VND40,000/big bowl; VND35,000/small bowl

Whether you order a big or a small bowl, bun moc there always comes with all the toppings, which create a harmony of flavors: the slight sweetness of cha lua, the light fragrance of cinnamon in cha que, the strong sweetness of cha la, and the crunchiness of moc. Added to this is the pork ribs that are stewed over a long time till they get soft, but still have the meat's taste. 

Like many other bun dishes, bun moc is also accompanied with strips of water spinach, banana flowers, bean sprouts and several kinds of herbs that can be eaten raw or boiled.

I recommend that a little bit of mam tom (shrimp paste), lime juice, and chili are added to the bowl before eating, but even if you choose to go without these, bun moc is still a dish to savor and admire.

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