With its long history of rice cultivation, Vietnam cuisine features an endless variety of rice-noodle dishes. Apart from pho, which is made with flat rice noodles, there is the bun which are fresh thin and round. Bun dishes, mostly soups, can be found all over the country. But each region has distinct versions of bun, giving food lovers a variety of mouth-watering options.
In the north, for instance, one of the most popular dishes is the bun oc, a rice noodle soup with fresh water snails.
It is said that residents of Hanoi’s Quang An Village would pick up snails from nearby West Lake to serve with bun. The season for snails was the arrival of spring rains, so bun oc was only available at this time of the year.
The beginning of the year was also the time when devotees thronged the Tay Ho shrine and the worshippers would drop in to have a bowl of Bun oc after saying their prayers. Bun oc thus became a specialty of this area.
“When I was small, I often helped my grandmother cook bun oc, a specialty of West Lake people,” said Masterchef Vietnam judge Pham Tuan Hai.
“I still remember that in the old days, my grandmother would add dam bong, rice wine residue, to create a pleasantly sour taste for the broth. This is an indispensable ingredient for bun oc for the West Lake people,” Hai said.
The broth of bun oc decides the quality of the dish, as it does for all other bun dishes. For bun oc, tomatoes and rice wine residue are added to the boiling snail broth. The meat of the snail is removed from its shell only when the dish is ready to be served.
After learning the skills from her mother, Thanh Nga has been offering bun oc in the West Lake area for more than 50 years now.
“Things have changed significantly around me, but the way this dish is cooked remains the same.
“To make a proper bowl of bun oc with the right flavours, the cook must choose the right snails and seasoning for the broth, as well as fresh rice noodles. Choosing the right ingredients will make up 50 per cent of the success of the dish,” Nga said.
There is also a cold version of bun oc, in which ingredients are set out separately: a plate of rice noodles, a dipping bowl of broth with some boiled snails. The highlight of this dish is the light sour taste of the dipping broth and the crunchiness of the snails. The broth for the cold bun oc is just the water in which snails are boiled, with rice wine residue and other seasonings added.
Bun oc is no longer a seasonal dish. It is offered all year round and can be found in restaurants, food stalls as well as the wicker baskets of local vendors.
There are those who add fried tofu, green banana, pork ribs, crab meat or fried pork fat to the dish, depending on customers’ choice.