Bun Bo Nam Bo – Perhaps the Best Noodle Dish Anywhere

Tucked away in a little corner near Hang Da Market in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, is a little noodle shop known far and wide as “Bun Bo Nam Bo”.  Let’s break apart these luscious words which construct the tastiest of dishes.

“Bun Bo” simply means beef noodle. “Bun” being the round rice noodle and “Bo” meaning beef. This, however, is not be confused with the equally delightful “pho bo” which many would call beef noodle soup. The ubiquitous “pho” is made with a delightfully fragrant beef broth and, of course, sliced beef and the flat rice noodles.

“Bun Bo” is something different. Now this can get confusing because there are types of “bun bo” which are also soups – “Bun Bo Hue” – the variety also made from a beef broth.

But “bun bo nam bo” is different from “bun bo hue” because “bun bo nam bo” does not use beef broth – using instead a sauce. More on that later.

What does “nam bo” literally mean? “Nam bo” literally means the sphere of the south – so it’s the type of “bun bo” you would get in the southern part of Vietnam.

Obviously, if you make “bun bo” in the south, you aren’t going to add the word “nam bo” to it because you already know that you are in the south. Which is essence makes “bun bo nam do Hanoi” a unique moniker. I can’t exactly speak to the authenticity of this dish as it compares to its actual southern companion, all I know is that “bun bo nam bo Hanoi” is magnificent.

I’ve been meaning to re-create it for a long time in my own kitchen because I really miss it and I finally did so. The results were spectacular.

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What you need:

round rice noodles

Thinly sliced beef – (I used an Asian marinade on some tenderloin and used the broiler to cook it. It was tender and juicy)

Toppings: Thai basil (delectable!), chopped peanuts, bean sprouts, crispy fried onions, chopped green onions

The Sauce: (I used my Vietnamese friend’s home recipe for the bun bo sauce – though the added lime juice was my own addition.)

  • Vietnamese fish sauce diluted in water (I used about 1/2 cup fish sauce and added about 2 cups of water – this was plenty of sauce for 4-6 servings)
  • A head of garlic – chopped finely
  • sugar
  • Chili sauce – use Sriachi is excellent for this – authentic VN chili sauce taste
  • Lime juice

(play around with the quantities until you have a tasty sauce that is suitably spicy to your taste. Add a little ground black pepper if you like!)

Assembly: Super easy. Put the noodles in the bowl, add beef and all the toppings you want, pour several spoonfuls of sauce over top so some excess collects on the bottom of the bowl. Mix and eat with chopsticks.

Fantastic!

Here it is half gone!  Enjoy!

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Crispy Vietnamese Noodles and a Memory

As you might know, I live in Penang, Malaysia. I used to live in Vietnam. Not much Vietnamese food in Penang, unfortunately, but plenty of other great cuisine.

I was at my favorite hawker stalls the other day (for you locals, we call it “Lucky 99”) and my wife ordered a dish from a Chinese vendor called crispy noodles. We used to eat crispy noodles in Vietnam and wondered if this dish was anything similar to what we used to eat.

One bite confirmed it. Identical. An unmistakable taste. I was immediately transported back in time 18 years to a small alley-way in central Haiphong City – right across from a Buddhist temple – to a small open air shop where my students used to take this formerly palate challenged American.

When I arrived in Vietnam, I thought the Big Mac was on the top of the food chain. I couldn’t understand why my students disparaged frozen food. I said to them, “you have to try American frozen food. It’s so good!” I shutter to think of the person I used to be, but I’m glad I learned to accept the idea that perhaps I wasn’t the most open-minded person in the world.

I remember one time in particular when two young friends whisked me away to this delectable back-alley noodle shop. I, of course, offered to pay for my friends and asked what the brother-sister tandem wanted. The brother replied that he was starving and ordered a plate of noodles. The sister said she wasn’t hungry. I said ‘ok’ and we ordered two plates. I looked over at the sister and asked once more, “you sure you don’t want anything?” She humbly replied that she wasn’t hungry.

The two of us gobbled down the crispy noodles topped with sliced pork, a delicate gravy sauce and some chili peppers. It was delicious, but I was sure my Big Mac would be jealous.

We had a pleasant conversation and then went home, happy and satisfied. Or so I thought.

About a year later when I had gotten to know the pair much better, the sister looked at me one day and said, “Mark, do you remember the day when we were at the noodle shop with my brother.” I did. “Yes,” I replied. “I remember that you weren’t hungry.” “Actually, that’s not right,” she replied. “I was starving.” “Then why didn’t you order anything?” I asked in a perplexing manner. “Because,” she concluded. “You only asked me two times. I didn’t want to seem too eager, that wouldn’t be polite. If you had asked me a third time, I would have said ‘yes'” I was confused. “But your brother accepted immediately. Why is that?” I asked. “He had spent a lot of time around foreigners and knew that if you wanted something to eat, you had to say so immediately. I didn’t know that.”

Live and learn. We laughed about it. I felt bad, of course, but chalked it up to being inexperienced in an exotic land. From that point on, I was determined to learn all I could about Vietnamese culture and to do that I realized that I needed to learn the language – which I eventually did.

So …

Lesson One: when inviting your Vietnamese friends, ask at least three times.

Lesson Two: Always be a learner. Humble yourself and your own desires and wishes to learn about other people and cultures.

Lesson Three: Penang has a place that sells crispy Vietnamese noodles. (Even if they call them Chinese.)