Restaurant: Thien Long Restaurant
City: San Jose, CA
Another dish we had in addition to the grilled fish (Chả Cá Lã Vọng) at Thien Long was a type of noodle soup that originated at the southernmost region of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta. We basically had dinner from two opposites of Vietnam, the north and south!
Thien Long described their bún mắm as thin noodles in fermented fish soup with pork, fish, eggplant, and shrimp. When we ate the dish, we discovered that there was actually fish in two ways – fish paste on a green chili pepper, and fish chunks (my dad suspected it was sole, the same type of fish we had in the grilled fish dish). We also noticed there was squid in the soup as well. The soup was spicy, salty, sweet, and sour at the same time!
They served a plate full of mung bean sprouts, cabbage, and banana blossom (or banana flower). We added those three ingredients to our bowl, as shown below. Doesn’t it look prettier?!
Vietnam Coracle explains this dish very well:
Bún mắm is a robust Vietnamese soup that’s packed with contrasting flavours, textures and colours. Pungent, fishy, sweet, sour, dark, vibrant, silky and crunchy, this is a soup that challenges your taste buds. There’s nothing subtle about bún mắm: it’s bold and confrontational – each flavour and texture is in a fight to dominate your palate. Such is the density of bún mắm, that you’ll discover something new each time you try it.
Bún mắm is a southern Vietnamese dish, thought to have originated in Sóc Trăng Province, in the Mekong Delta. This vast area, to the south of Saigon, is flat, flooded and fertile. A large quantity of all Vietnam’s rice, fish, fruit and vegetables are grown here. A bowl of bún mắm is a good cross-section of all this produce: in many ways, this soup represents the ‘Mekong in a bowl’.
I like to break bún mắm down into three main elements: 1. bún and mắm (the noodles and the broth) 2. the ‘chunky bits’ 3. the ‘greens’:
1. Bún and mắm:
The Mekong Delta is famous for being the rice basket of Vietnam, so it seems fitting that bún (a thin, white noodle made from rice flour) is one of the foundations of this soup. Second to rice, the Mekong Delta is famous for its fish. Mắm is a potent, fermented fish sauce that’s the other essential ingredient in this soup; it’s what gives the broth its pungent, fishy aroma: bún + mắm = bún mắm.
2. The Chunky Bits:
With the fundamental components of bún and mắm in place, early cooks looked around them for other ingredients to add body to their soup. This being the Mekong Delta, they were spoilt for choice. Into the broth went tamarind, spices, lemongrass and eggplant, while all sorts of goodies were dropped into the bowl to accompany the noodles: little fillets of white river fish, chunks of fish cake, squid, whole shrimp, slices of aubergine, and crispy cuts of roast pork belly. The latter may have been the influence of Chinese migrants in the Mekong region. In fact, many people speculate that the origins of bún mắm lie not in Vietnam but in neighbouring Cambodia, whose Khmer empire once ruled over what is now southern Vietnam. Even today, in the Mekong provinces of Sóc Trăng and Trà Vinh, there’s still a healthy population of Khmer and Chinese.
3. The Greens:
Even if this soup originated abroad or was influenced by foreign cuisines, today it’s a firm favourite in southern Vietnam. One of the things that southern Vietnamese dishes (especially soups) are famous for is the plethora of fresh greens that they are served with. Even by southern standards, bún mắm is accompanied by a jungle of leaves, storks, stems, flowers and herbs. These come on a separate plate, either uncooked or blanched in hot water. In amongst this forest of greens you’ll find the purple stems of water lilies, the yellow-white curls of banana blossom, bean shoots, a couple of varieties of ‘pond weed’ (there are so many kinds of pond weed that even locals have difficulty naming them), and a leaf popularly known in Vietnamese as giấp cá, which means ‘fish-smelling leaf’ (personally I don’t think it smells very fishy at all, and prefer to call it by one of its many other informal names, ‘heartleaf’).
Once all the three elements – bún and mắm, the chunky bits, and the greens – are mixed together in your bowl, there’s a war of flavours and textures going on in there. The broth is at once light, sweet and tangy, but also thick, heavy and pungent. The chunky bits are both delicate and hearty. The greens are crunchy and light, but also bitter and sharp. Your taste buds can get very confused: is it sweet, or is it savoury? The wonderful result of this ‘war’ is that no two mouthfuls are the same.
Bún mắm isn’t the easiest of Vietnamese soups to get into. But, as is so often the case with the very best Vietnamese dishes, the more challenging it is, the greater the reward. It’s a bit like jazz (for me, at least): I remember the first time I heard John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’; it seemed like a big mess – where were the harmonies, the melodies? But each time I listened to it, I heard something new, and it started to make more and more sense, until it became one of my favourite albums – that’s what bún mắm is like.
Here’s also how a Chicago food critic described this type of dish, from Chicago Reader:
Bun mam, aka Vietnamese gumbo, a sour seafood soup not unlike Thai tom yam that originated in the Mekong Delta. It may not best the bowl you’d cool down with in the sweltering damp of Saigon’s Ben Thanh market—that one incorporates pork too—but it’s a solid one, brimming with eggplant, shrimp, squid, and silky, thinly sliced fish, accompanied by a heaping side of bean sprouts, cilantro, mint, and jalapeños.