Bún riêu cua is traditionally a vermicelli rice noodle soup made with tomato broth, meat, crab and shrimp paste. I'm not a very big fan of the meat flavors with shrimp paste so I usually make it meatless, using a paste of soybeans (and add the crab separately). The visuals and texture resemble the crab patties and the broth has the same fragrance from the sweet tomatoes.
The soup is typical Vietnamese comfort food. It's paired with the usual Vietnamese aromatic herbs and topped with other vegetables and fried tofu for a complete meal.
Servings: 10 servings
1 cup dried soybeans 4 tablespoons lemon juice 1 daikon radish 4 tablespoons canola oil (or any neutral oil) 1 (8-ounce) package thick rice vermicelli noodles 1 tablespoon garlic, finely minced 2 shallots, thinly sliced 1 teaspoon red chili powder 1 yellow onion, peeled 1 (2-inch) chunk ginger 1 tablespoon mushroom seasoning salt (or regular salt) 1 teaspoon salt ½ teaspoon black pepper 2 Fuji apples, quartered 1 (2-inch) chunk rock sugar (about 2 ounces), or granulated sugar, depending on the sweetness of the apples 1 (12.3-ounce) package firm tofu 5 medium-sized tomatoes, preferably ripe 2 tablespoons tomato paste 2 king mushrooms, sliced 1 cup fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced 3 stalks celery, peeled and halved 2 carrots, trimmed and peeled 6 sprigs Thai basil 6 sprigs Vietnamese mint 6 sprigs tía tô (see tips) 6 sprigs rau răm (see tips) 3 tablespoons cilantro 4 tablespoons green onions, finely chopped 2 cups iceberg lettuce, shredded 2 fresh serrano peppers, sliced ½ white onion (milder in flavor), thinly sliced 4 red Thai bird chiles 1 cup nước chấm condiment (click on the link for the recipe) 3 limes, cut into wedges
One day ahead:
Soaking the soybeans: In a bowl, wash the soybeans thoroughly. Pick out and discard any badly-shaped beans, then soak them for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Set aside.
The next day:
For the rice noodles: Fill a large pot with water. Bring to a boil. Add the noodles. Wait for the water to come back to a boil (about 1-2 minutes), then lower the heat to medium-low for about 8 minutes. Drain the liquid. Rinse the noodles. Drizzle with ½ teaspoon of oil to prevent the noodles from sticking to each other too much. Set them aside.
For the tofu: Drain the liquid from the package of the tofu. Pat the tofu dry with a paper towel. Cut into ½-inch slices, then cut each slice into ½-inch strips . In a pan, heat the oil and pan-fry the strips until slightly golden. Don't overcook the pieces or they'll start to get hard. The tofu should still be moist. Transfer all the tofu to a paper towel and let it cool. Set aside on a plate.
Prepping the tomatoes: This step is optional but I find tomato skin unpleasant to chew. Here's a neat method to peel tomatoes. Make a small, shallow criss-cross cut at the bottom of the fresh tomatoes using a breadknife (I use a breadknife because the blade won't bruise the fruit). Fill a small saucepan with cold water and bring to a boil. Place the tomatoes in the water and wait for at least 30 seconds. Remove the tomatoes quickly (I use a large strainer or a slotted spoon), then transfer to an ice cold bath to stop the cooking process. The skin of the tomatoes will come right off. Cut the tomato flesh into wedges. Set aside.
How to make vegetarian broth: In a large pot, combine the daikon, onion, apples and 4 quarts of water. Bring to a roaring boil for about 30 minutes and cook until the broth is reduced by 1/3. Regularly skim the impurities rising to the surface of the broth using a fine mesh strainer. Add the carrots, celery, 2 tomatoes, rock sugar and mushroom seasoning salt. Lower the heat to a bubbly simmer. Cook for about 15 more minutes. Remove and discard the apples and daikon (if you like the taste keep it, otherwise discard it). Remove the celery and carrots from the broth. Slice the vegetables, reserve about 2 tablespoons and place the rest back in the broth.
Prepping the soybean patties: Drain the liquid. In a blender, combine the soaked soybeans, some salt and pepper. Drizzle with a little water for a smooth flow. Process until you have a smooth yet thick consistency. Transfer to a bowl, add the reserved vegetables and 1 tablespoon of green onions.
Grease disposable gloves with oil, then form 10
¼" to ½" thick patties. Place them on a greased platter. The patties shouldn't look perfect.
In a small pot, bring water to a boil. Add the patties and slowly drizzle with lemon juice. After some seconds, you should see the soybean splitting into lumps of curd and watery whey. The curds shoud should have the appearance of a crab cake with feathery sides.
Frying the garlic and shallots: Add 3 tablespoons of oil to a pan. Sauté the garlic until golden. Transfer to a plate. Add the shallots to the oil, and cook, stirring frequently to prevent the shallots from burning, until the color is evenly golden brown. Transfer the shallots to the plate as well.
Add the king mushrooms. Cook for about 2-3 minutes, then add the shiitake mushrooms. Transfer to a plate and set aside. In the same pan, add the garlic, shallots, tomato paste and red chili powder. Cook for a minute. Add a ladleful of the broth, stir well and pour all the contents of the pan and the rest of the tomato wedges into the big stock pot. The broth should be fragrant and properly seasoned. Check the seasoning. Season with salt and pepper if necessary. Adjust sweetness of the broth. The amount of sugar varies with the sweetness of the apples and tomatoes. The secret is to balance the sweetness and the saltiness. Be sure not to over-salt!
Bring the soup back to a boil then add all the soybean patties. Let simmer for about 15 minutes. Let sit until you're ready to serve.
The broth may cool a bit. Let it come back to a boil for one last time, then add the rest of the green onions. Cover for 5-8 minutes, then remove the pot from the stove.
Line up your serving bowls. Place a little chopped white onion and aromatic herbs (basil, mint, tía tô, rau răm and cilantro) in each bowl. Add the rice noodles. Ladle the broth into the bowls with the carrots, celery and shiitake mushrooms. Top with fried tofu and the soybean patties (divide each patty into 4 pieces per bowl) .
Garnish with more raw white onions, lettuce and more Vietnamese herbs. Serve with nước chấm, lime wedges and fresh chiles on the side.
For more recipes using different kinds of noodles, click on the link.
My decision in making bún riêu usually depends on how sweet the tomatoes are (whether they're from the market or our garden). So make sure they are naturally quite sweet so you don't have to add much more rock sugar to the broth.
If you're a vegetarian, infusing apples gives a natural sweetness that resembles chicken broth. You can substitute 2 tablespoons of frozen apple juice concentrate for the fresh apples. When I make vegetable broth, I tend to use Fuji apples or Golden Delicious, which are some of the sweetest varieties.
Daikon (củ cải trắng in Vietnamese) is an Asian radish that looks like a large white carrot. I use this root a lot when making broth to add natural sweetness to it. You can discard the root when the broth is ready. Some people like to eat daikon but I don't care for it.
The acidity from the lemon juice will split the soybeans and form the curds. This method will help form and get the patties firm. You could also use tamarind concentrate instead of lemon juice.
You can find king oyster mushrooms in Asian stores. They are also called abalone mushrooms and have a very meaty texture, which is perfect for this dish.
Tía tô are Vietnamese perilla leaves; they are green on one side and deep red-purple on the other side. They're a very common garnish in simmered dishes and rice vermicelli noodle dishes.
Rau răm is another Vietnamese aromatic herb that is an acquired taste for someone who's not familiar with the fragrance. My husband Lulu is not a big fan. I would describe the flavor as spicy coriander, and it goes very well with chicken; I use it for cơm gà Hải Nam (Vietnamese chicken rice dish) and gơigà (Vietnamese chicken salad). I recently bought a plant at my local nursery. It's called "Vietnamese coriander" at Summer Winds Nursery, 725 San Antonio Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94303.
You can find rock sugar in any Asian stores. You can also use granulated sugar.
Vietnamese mint has a very different flavor from regular mint. It also has darker vein markings on the leaves. It's commonly used in Asian salads such as Vietnamese chicken salad and also in spring rolls (gỏi cuốn in Vietnamese).
Mushroom seasoning salt brings a very distinct, earthy flavor to the broth. You can find it at gourmet specialty stores or in most Korean stores. I buy it at Marina Foods -10122 Bandley Drive -Cupertino, CA 95014.
For the seafood lovers in our home, I transfer some of the tomato broth into a separate saucepan and cook fresh crab meat patties that I form with finely chopped raw shallots, green onions, finely ground dried shrimp (optional) and lightly beaten eggs (Count 1 whole crab for 3 eggs). Just wait for the broth to come back to a boil and gently add the patties. Lower the heat and let simmer for about 5 minutes.
Dried shrimp (tôm khô in Vietnamese) add a unique salty taste to the crab patties. I finely grind them before adding to the mixture. This ingredient is very common in Vietnamese cuisine. I sometimes add some to fried rice but when cooked, the taste is very different.
If you have vegetable broth left over, place the broth in containers and store in the freezer. It will keep for up to 6 months.
Note: Glossary of relevant Vietnamese cooking terms.