The strong smell is its strong suit

By Dara Thanh Nhan, Thanh Nien News

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Pleiku’s bun cua (crab rice vermicelli soup) can be off-putting at first, but once you acquire a taste for it, the flavors grow on you

A bowl of bun cua - a famous street food in Pleiku / PHOTO: DARA THANH NHAN
One afternoon, I was walking up an incline in Pleiku, the famous town in Gia Lai Province, when the chilly breeze stoked my desire for something warm to eat or drink.
As if in answer to my prayers, I saw steam emanate from a street stall. Going closer, I saw a middle-aged woman busily serving her customers. There was a pot of broth and a basket of bun (rice vermicelli) in front of her.
She was selling bun cua – the town’s famous street food that a friend had once recommended a long time ago.
I took a seat and ordered a bowl.
Soon a dish of raw leafy vegetables consisting of shredded banana flower, lettuce, finger grass, Vietnamese balm, and herbs like basil was placed in front of me. Among the vegetables was a stick of cha (pork paste) wrapped in banana leaf that customers would optionally add to their bun cua.
Groups of young people and families around me slurping with evident enjoyment.
It did not take long for my order to be served. I was immediately struck by its smell – a combination of mam nem (sauce made from fermented fish) and fermented crab extract.
The strong smell is what Pleiku residents are proud of; it is what makes their bun cua a specialty, but it is also something that keeps people off the dish.
On that chilly afternoon, the smell warmed my growling stomach.
In fact, the broth had the sweet taste of crab meat – crabs are washed clean and finely ground before being filtered to remove fragments and keep the juice which is later added with salt and then let sit overnight. The next day, the crab juice is seasoned with mam nem, sugar, and condiments to make the broth.
After pouring the broth on the rice vermicelli, the vendor topped it with pieces of fresh bamboo sprouts that had been seasoned and stir-fried, slices of pork, and pieces of deep-fried pork skin.
I added raw vegetables, bean sprouts, cha and a pinch of ground chili pepper before beginning my own slurping session.
The broth’s saltiness, crab’s sweetness, the herbs’ fragrance, chili pepper’s spiciness, pork skin’s fattiness, and bamboo sprouts’ strong taste – all this combined to awaken all of my senses that chilly afternoon.
The strong smell of Pleiku’s bun cua turns non-natives off, but once you try it, chances are you will be turned on. It might be an acquired taste, but you will never forget its flavors and will want to have it again and again.

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