Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cooking with Hương

Nothing is better than home cooking. So when my friend Hương invited her friend Phương and me over to her house for some homemade bún bò (beef noodle salad) and nem (spring rolls), I jumped at the chance with only one condition: she would have to teach me how to make the stuff. And so last Saturday, armed with an apron and an appetite, I placed myself in Hương's capable hands.

On the way, Phương stopped at a vegetable stand to pick up some greens. One of the signature elements of Vietnamese cuisine is its use of fresh herbs. Whereas North Americans will commonly buy veggies and pop them in the fridge, the Vietnamese insistence on freshness means that people often go out two or three times a day to buy the freshest ingredients possible before mealtime. Additionally, Vietnamese cuisine finds uses for herbs that are considered weeds in other countries. The picture below shows, from left to right: rau ngổ, tia tô, rau kinh giới, and rau thơm. Rau ngổ is known in English, if it's known at all, as Rice Paddy Herb (limnophilia aromatica). It has long, arrow-shaped leaves and a mellow, citrusy flavor. Tía tô is Vietnamese Perilla, a peppery herb related to the Japanese shiso, with a slightly more aromatic taste. Its purple and green leaves provide wonderful color, and its earthy flavor is slightly reminiscent of fennel. Rau kinh giới (elsholtzia ciliata) is Vietnamese Lemon Balm; it has beautiful green leaves with serrated edges and a lemon-scented flavor with a suggestion of mint. The last herb is oregano an as-yet unidentified mint-like herb, known around here as rau thơm. These herbs are frequently served raw at the Vietnamese table alongside countless soups, noodle dishes, and other fare; diners add them as and when they wish.

When we got to Hương's house, I was a little disappointed to find that she had already made the mixture for the nem "to save time." The mix, I was told, consisted of pork, carrot, miến (glass mung bean noodles), bean sprouts, eggs, onions, green onions, parley, pepper, a little oil, and a prepackaged Vietnamese spice mix called gia vị, all chopped very fine. My job, I soon found out, was to roll the nem. After a short lesson, I was aproned and put to work. The video below shows me demonstrating the proper technique.

Once the nem were prepared, they were ready to be fried – slowly, over a low flame. While I manned the stove, Hương began making the nước chấm – the sweet, peppery fish sauce mixture designed to flavor the bún bò, and serve as a dipping sauce for the nem. To begin, a bowl was filled 3/4 full with warm water. Next, a little fish sauce was added – just enough to give the sauce a light golden color. After this, a hearty bit of sugar was added, followed by a little vinegar, some crushed garlic, and a healthy dose of black pepper. Like all good cooks, Hương kept tasting and adjusting the mixture until she came up with a sauce in which all the aforementioned flavors were roughly evenly balanced, with a slight preponderence of the pepper.
Making the bún bò was more a matter of assembling than cooking anything. The white starchy bún, or rice-flour noodles, are normally bought pre-cooked and ready to eat, in large skeins that only need to be cut before serving. For the bún bò, a bottom layer of lettuce, then successive layers of bean sprouts, bún, beef (which is simply marinated in pepper and gia vị and pan-fried), some freshly-fried shallots, and finally the nước chấm, completed the assembly. Sliced cucumbers, peanuts, and the fresh herbs were placed at table to be added by diners according to their tastes.

The final spread was a visual delight: here you see the lovely Hương beside her creation. The flavors were outstanding, with everything I've come to love about Vietnamese food - the contrasting textures, subtle aromas, and crisp freshness of all the greens. And for all I've come to enjoy street food, I realized how much better it is to have it made at home by a capable chef. My thanks to Hương and Phương both for a lovely evening.


  1. I can practically smell that from America! Vietnamese food is some of the best food on the planet.

  2. the dish is called Bu'n Xa`o Bo`(stir fried Beef with rice noodle ) . Bu'n Bo` is the name for a different dish that comes from central Viet Nam . Just

  3. Hey Just,

    Thanks for the clarification, but let me state my reasons for using this name.

    Like you, I would have preferred to call the dish bún bò xào. But believe it or not, up here in Hanoi they call this dish Bún Bò Huế!

    Naturally, if you search for Bún Bò Huế online, you will find a soup by the same name. It just goes to show how complicated the whole naming thing is (see my notes on Bánh Mì/Mỳ Huế/Bít Tết/Bíttết).

    Ôi trời ơi!

    I called it simply bún bò because that was the name my friends used. My feeling is, these names are all correct, depending on the speaker or the region. It's interesting though, isn't it?

    Thanks again,


  4. I have been informed the "rau thơm" is actually "basil" and is the main herb for traditional beef noodle soup.

  5. Hi Doug,

    This seems to be another southern vs. northern thing. It's definitely not basil.

    I had some initial confusion over the name rau thơm, because it translates as "fragrant herb" and could easily be an umbrella tern for EVERY Vietnamese herb! I asked Hương, and she found a picture online of the herb she had used. Clearly oregano - positive ID, man.

    It's interesting how many of my food posts are provoking corrections that I take back to my friends up here, only to have them turn the correction back around. There seems to be little standardization to these things. It makes you wonder: how many "Vietnameses" actually comprise this language, doesn't it?

    Thanks as always,


  6. That's really amazing! I love all of those dishes! You know, last year, I went out with my whole class to my teacher's house. We made some really delicious dishes that I can still remember "bun' cha?"(another kind of bun' cha? that differs slightly from the one I ate in Hanoi) and "nem". I love them all! Love them not only because of they were so good but also because of the process of making them, I had a lot of fun.
    About those crazy "rau tho*m":
    + "rau tho*m" can be translated literally "fragrant herb" or "fragrant green". They're really fragrant of course!
    + "rau tho*m" includes many types of herb, basil is just a kind of "rau tho*m". I can name some of them: cilantro, lettuce, lemon grass...
    + I've searched on wikipedia and they said that "rau thom" sometimes was used to say about "basil"--that's crazy to me also!
    + I've just found a link that listed some Vietnamese food and their ingredient. Hope it help!

  7. Hey Duong - Thanks for your insights. Where's the link? I want to see it! :-)

  8. Click on my name! The name above! Hope you like it!