Vietnam is a crazy place, especially when it comes to food. I wouldn’t recommend the standard “point-and-cross-your-fingers” method at your everyday Vietnamese restaurant or you run the risk of getting a bowl of organs, snails, duck fetus or even dog and cat parts. I’m not saying any of these things aren’t absolutely delicious (MMMMMeow), but being delicious doesn’t make them any less crazy!
Since the end of the Vietnam War, one Vietnamese dish in particular has taken the U.S. by storm: Pho! If you want proof of how crazy Vietnamese food can be, you need only walk down to your neighborhood whitewashed pho restaurant, where you will find the typical bowl full of intestines and cartilage (with a few pieces of actual meat mixed in). Pho is a prime example of the typical Vietnamese flavor profile, balancing the savory beef broth with spicy chilies, tart lime juice and aromatic fresh herbs. It’s sort of like adding a salad to your soup.
Chrissy and I volunteered teaching English for a month in Hanoi, Vietnam (one of the farthest removed SE Asian cities from Western influence). During that time, we were housed in an apartment owned by the program coordinator, Mrs. Hay, who came by to cook us two fresh Vietnamese meals a day in between running the language school. Although all of Mrs. Hay’s cooking was incredible, one dish in particular emerged as the unanimous favorite among the volunteers: Bún bò Nam Bộ, or South Vietnamese beef noodles.
This dish is essentially a bowl of springy rice noodles topped with fresh herbs, stir fried beef, roasted peanuts and fried onion all doused with a ladle of nuoc cham (which is a very common Vietnamese condiment consisting of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies, and sugar). Although it sounds complicated, it’s actually easier to make than pho as most of the ingredients are served fresh and it doesn’t require any long simmering.
As with most dishes I encounter in Asia, I tried my best to seek out a place in the U.S. where I might find Bún bò Nam Bộ after I return, and even in a huge multicultural city like Los Angeles, I was able to find exactly zero! Crap! Well lucky for me (and you) I convinced Mrs. Hay to show me how to whip myself up some Bún bò Nam Bộ at home. It might sound a bit complicated at first, but I assure you this dish is very simple and well worth the effort. Give it a try yourself!
WHAT YOU NEED (8-10 servings):
For the Beef:
- 1.5 lbs. (600 g.) beef chuck steak very thinly sliced across the grain (Vietnamese love chewier meat).
- 2 Tbsp. fish sauce
- 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 3 Tbsp. vegetable or sunflower oil
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3 tsp. vinegar (ideally rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar)
- 1/2 Tbsp. chili paste
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
For the Nuoc Cham:
- 2.5 cups (600 ml.) warm water
- 4 limes
- 10 Tbsp. white sugar
- 2/3 cups (160 ml.) fish sauce (to taste depending on brand)
- 1 tsp. vinegar (rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar)
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped or mashed with a kitchen mallet
- 5 birds eye chilies, thinly sliced
For the rest:
- 32 oz. uncooked rice vermicelli noodles (or 64 oz. fresh noodles)
- 16 oz. roasted unsalted coarsely crushed peanuts (can be crushed with a couple pulses in a food processor or mortar & pestle; for best results give the peanuts an extra roast in the oven or pan so that they’re extra crispy)
- 1/2 lb. bean sprouts, blanched (optional)
- 1 big bundle of cilantro (coriander)
- 1 big bundle of spearmint (or other available asian mint/thai basil)
- 1 head butter lettuce (or other more tender and less crunchy type of lettuce)
- fried onion for garnish
- Add the sliced beef to a wok (or pan) along with the other listed beef marinade ingredients and mix well. Let the beef marinade on the counter for about 20 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.
- While the beef marinates, add the dry vermicelli noodles to a bowl of warm water and let set for about 15 minutes (skip this step if using fresh noodles). While the noodles soak, bring a pot of water to a boil for cooking the noodles in Step 5.
- Mix all the ingredients for the Nuoc Cham together in a bowl starting with the water, then the other ingredients. Mix well.
- Adjust the Nuoc Chom to taste. This is one of the most important topics of the recipe and is a subject of much debate in Vietnam. Ideally the order of flavor profile is as follows: sweet>salty>sour>spicy. These flavors can be adjusted with the addition of sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and chilies respectively.
- Remove the soaking noodles from the bowl and add to the pot of boiling water. Cook the noodles for about 2 minutes until they are firm, but far from being soggy. Strain the noodles and then run them under cold water to stop the cooking completely (This dish is served cold). If using fresh noodles, you need only blanch them for about 15-20 seconds.
- Make sure to actively strain the noodles to remove as much water as possible. You can lay the noodles out on a towel or plate for best results.
- While the noodles dry, fire up the stove and stir fry the beef (in the wok/pan where it was marinating) until the beef is cooked well done (a sin in western culture, but necessary in Vietnamese cuisine). Remove from heat once fully cooked.
- Prep the bowls by adding first a handful of noodles to each, and then topping with herbs & lettuce, then beef, then peanuts, and finally fried onions.
- Immediately before serving each bowl, take one ladle of nuoc cham and pour over each bowl.
- Serve and enjoy! Most people mix the ingredients all together after being served and eat with chopsticks and an Asian soup spoon.