Bun Bo Hue is a noodle soup from the region of Hue, the old imperial capital of Viet Nam. When in Hue with my sisters, we completely forgot to order any Bun Bo Hue from anywhere to eat. We were much too excited by the vegetarian banquet put out before us, and at another restaurant, distracted by the flags that they gave to each table of Viet Kieu. They gave us the Stars and Stripes of the US, before we had even said anything. I looked at it for awhile wonderingly, and then, while the waitress was out of the room, got up and went over to the display of flags and exchanged the Stars and Stripes for the Australian Union Jack and Southern Cross combo. I plonked that flag down on our table , and my sisters affectionately shook their heads at me. Another table watched my progress and then did the same: exchanging their Stars and Strips for the red and white maple leaf affair of the Canadian flag. We all giggled conspiratorially together when the waitress came back and looked from our table, to their table, and then over to the flag table. But she neither frowned nor smiled, so what we had done must have been a neutral act.
It also rained the entire couple of days that we were in Hue, so we did not wander the streets very much; we were chaperoned by our grumpy tour guide from monument, to temple, to imperial palace grounds, to hotel, to market, to restaurant. I found our tour guide extremely difficult to understand: the Hue accent is mellifluous, gentle and musical; the words flow together. I need sharp distinctions in my Viet words to know what is being said. After all, my family speak Viet in sharp ringing tones, like the fishwives they all once were, or were descended from. Initially, I frowned at our tour guide, listening as hard as I could, and then I would look over at my eldest sister, who also looked like she was struggling to understand. If she was struggling, I had no chance. Eventually, I gave up. I wandered away from our guide a number of times to read signs in English, and I don’t think she liked that very much. I also had my lovely red raincoat, so the rain was but minor hindrance to my explorations. She did not like the rain, and she would rush us from one shelter under turned up eaves to another, or from the van door to the inside of temple grounds. I wanted to wander and explore the grounds themselves, not merely the inside of buildings. So I did. My sisters tried to tell her to leave me be, but she would try to call me in to listen to her guiding. I told her that I was happy exploring on my own and that I had trouble understanding her because my Vietnamese was very poor. It was easiest for me to surreptitiously tell my sisters that I would see them shortly and wander away, into the rain, where she would not follow.
As we drove away from Hue, shortly after lunch, I cried out, “Oh no! We did not eat Bun Bo Hue in Hue!” My eldest sister said, “We can stop.” I replied that I was much too full. Her response? “Eat it in Sai Gon, it will probably be better anyway.” And we all chuckled, suspecting this to be true. I was not overly impressed by Hue, but I think that was the fault of our guide, and not of the town, which has much crumbling imperial and colonial granduer to recommend it. Another time, I will visit and I will not be shackled by no grumpy tour guide!
I decided to try to cook Bun Bo Hue recently. So, it being roughly three weeks since the last time I had spoken to my parents, I telephoned my mother. I informed her of my intention to cook Bun Bo Hue and asked her what the ingredients were. I had done a brief internet search to try to locate a recipe, but failed.
I did find some interesting information, however. A number of sites (don’t ask, when I google, I open loads of links and then close them again. I only remember the ones that were useful, and sometimes, not even them) referred to Bun Bo Hue as ‘spicy pho’. I thought this was odd, and much pleased when I read Wandering Chopsticks’ comment that Bun Bo Hue is not pho. I like her comment a lot:-
Mini-rant here. No it is NOT pho. Calling bun bo Hue a variation of pho is like saying fettucine alfredo is a version of spaghetti. Sure it’s easy to reference a more popular dish when trying to describe it, but in both cases: different noodles + different flavors = different dishes entirely. OK?
Tangentially, I also found this and this. The first is a recipe from Khmer Krom Recipes for a soup remarkably like Bun Bo Hue, but of Cambodian origin, and the second is an interview with the author of the website, Mylinh Nakry, by another blogger on Cambodian food, Phonmenon. I am probably going to get myself into trouble here. Oh well.
Mylinh Nakry, of Khmer Krom Recipes, says:
Vietnamese people loves this Khmer Krom soup so much that they changed Khmer Krom recipe name to Vietnamese name *Bun bo Hue*, and never gives us any credit which is no surprise to me since they also took our land. On 6-4-1949, French government illegally gave *Kampuchea Krom*( now know as South Vietnam) to Viet Nam. Hue (now know as Central Vietnam)was part of Champa that Khmer Empire was once ruled Champa and most of South East Asia.
She also makes this claim of Bun Rieu and pho, and probably some other dishes as well, except that I don’t know; I was looking, and then started to feel a bit silly. I cannot speak to her claim about the origin of Bun Bo Hue, or Bun Rieu, or pho. I do not know enough about the history of food and politics in Viet Nam and Cambodia / Kampuchea. I am prepared to accept that the borders of the region of what is now known as Viet Nam that borders what is now known as Cambodia were porous, and that cultural exchange, including inter-marriage, linguistic exchange and food exchange would have occurred. Perhaps one cuisine influenced another; more likely, the exchange was both ways. I am not prepared to accept that when Kampuchea Krom and Champa existed, one culture and one people and one food type existed and then continued, unchanged, to now, or to 1949. Nor am I prepared to accept that the Vietnamese people who first made Bun Bo Hue appropriated a Khmer Krom dish, and renamed it, in the same way they appropriated the land. It’s just not that simple.
Maybe they made something like it. Maybe the Cambodians used a spice, or herb, that the Vietnamese had not before and they thought, “Gosh, that’s tasty. Why don’t I chuck me some of that into this here soup I be making?” (Although perhaps not in a fake Aussie/Irish brogue.) Probably, the people who lived in the Champa kingdom are the ancestors of the people who live there now and their diaspora. As now, there were some indigenous and some not. But eventually, if you just keep living there, you belong there. Who were they? Cambodian? Viet? It would be fiendishly difficult to disentangle what ‘belongs’ to one culture / ethnic group or another. And for what? A claim to authenticity? Nationalism? Parochialism? To what end?
I’m very pleased that Mylinh Nakry feels strongly about her cultural / ethnic identity (however she would describe it) and applaud her attempt, via her website, to bring some attention to how Cambodian cuisine has languished in the shadows of its neighbours. But not in this simplistic way, that is so potentially damaging. I also don’t condone the hateful, and hate-mongering, and indeed contemptuously ridiculing, comments posted to Phnomenon’s site about Mylinh Nakry either. I got myself kind of lost in it. First I was mildly amused, and then outraged, and then, just saddened.
Whatever its origin, it’s a delicious dish. And I, because of my ethnic background, know it as Bun Bo Hue.
Back to my story.
When I spoke to my mother, to ask her the ingredients of Bun Bo Hue, she asked me if the local Asian grocery store stocked stock cubes. Perplexed, I said that I thought they did. She told me to find the one for Bun Bo Hue, and to use pork feet instead of beef bones in my stock. I said, “But don’t you make it from, you know, lemongrass and chilli and other things?” She replied, “No. I never cooked you Bun Bo Hue. Or if I did, I probably made it from the stock cube. Ask your brother-in-law. He knows how to cook it.” I was flummoxed. Had I never had Um-cooked Bun Bo Hue? I wracked my memory, and decided it was probably true. I had eaten Bun Bo Hue with my family, but rarely. More likely, we would have had Bun Rieu (which is on my list of things to work out how to cook). If we wanted to eat Bun Bo Hue, we would ask my sister in law to cook it. After further miscellaneous chit-chat with my mother, I rung off.
I then telephoned my brother in law, to ask him. I did not telephone my sister in law because she is more difficult to track down. After a chat with my sister, and telling her the true reason for why I had called, I spoke to my brother in law. He is the pho cook in the family. He also used to work in restaurants and can roll spring rolls at an alarming speed. We competed once (I’m a mean spring-roll-er myself, from way back) and he won easily; he rolled four for every one of mine. “So you want to cook Bun Bo Hue?” he started. “Yep”, said I. “With pork or with beef?” “With beef!” It is, Bun Bo Hue after all (bo means beef). “Okay. Well make sure you have oxtail then. That’s the best meat. Nothing from the shoulder, okay?” I made agreeing sounds although I was already going to disobey him. “Next, if you go to the Asian supermarket, you can buy stock cubes. You can get Bun Bo Hue stock cubes.” “What?” I burst out. “That’s what Um told me to do! I don’t want stock cubes. I want the ingredients!” “Oh, okay,” he conceded, “I just wanted to make it easier for you.”
Stock cubes! I can’t believe my family use stock cubes.
And on that note, this post is long enough already. Next post will be the recipe. Promise.