A Morning Bowl of Soup That Makes Cold Days Worthwhile
Bun Rieu Cua in Hanoi
As winter settles upon Hanoi, a penetrating, damp coldness seeps in, keeping bed sheets, clothes, and bones perpetually short of dry. The historic trading city is damp by nature, leapfrogging across several rivers, lakes, and ponds that constitute the marshy Red River Delta.
Like the eroding and resettling of sediment along its tapering riverbanks, the city both crumbles and rebuilds itself everyday. This constant state of activity makes a hot and hearty breakfast a necessity of life.
Bun rieu cua, a sour tomato and crab-paste noodle soup eaten in the first half of the day, is perhaps the heartiest of all.
Each layer of this breakfast soup takes something from its cold, watery environment and turns it into weapon to fight the evils of Hanoi winter.
Bà già, the grandma who ladles the soup at my favorite bun rieu spot, a bustling little shop on the corner of a narrow alley, must start the simmering process while the sky is still dark.
Pork bones, tomatoes, and crab juice simmer for hours to make the base broth. The soul of the soup comes from paddy crabs found in rice paddies and surrounding watery lands.
The crabs are crushed, bone and all, into a nutritious cure-all. Strained, the liquid makes the broth while the calcium rich paste is made more pungent and sweet with fish sauce, shallots, and egg.
Bà già says she adds tamarind, fish sauce, and a litany of ingredients spoken so quickly in Vietnamese they flew past my ears. A polite way to keep a chef’s secrets.
Later, she delicately adds crab paste to the top of the broth. It quickly cooks as it floats upon the eternally bubbling pot.
When I order, she flash cooks chewy bun rice noodles in a single-portion sized strainer, adroitly spills them into my bowl and piles on my regular additions.
First, tiny steamed snails—ốc—likely pulled from Westlake, the biggest lake in Hanoi, which still serves as a productive, albeit somewhat polluted, fishing grounds for locals.
Then cubes of fried tofu she quickly heats up again atop the broth.
Sometimes I agree to the deep purple, congealed pigs blood—huyết—for extra stores of energy, as if crab, snails, and tofu aren’t already enough protein.
She fills the bowl to the brim with the tomato broth and adds a dollop of caramelized shallots, something I’ve never seen in any other bun rieu.
At the wobbling table covered in a peeling formica laminate, one of the shop boys plops down the steaming bowl and a bowl of shredded lettuce, banana flower, mint variants, bean sprouts, and my favorite, split ITALrau muongITAL stems. I’m heavy handed with my greens; they add a fresh crunch that ensures this soup doesn’t miss out on a single flavor, texture or nutritional group.
For me, this soup represents the best of Hanoi: industrious like its chefs, entertaining with every flavor on the spectrum, and so hearty you may start to love the wet and grey winter skies.