When people ask me what is my favorite food in Vietnam, I always pause for a moment. Not because I have any doubt about the answer. That is very clear to me.
But because I am instantly transfixed back to a tiny shop in a narrow alley in the Ancient Quarter of Hanoi, with its 1000-year old buildings, mystical Asian aura, unique sounds and smells , and Hoan Kiem Lake
… where the answer to that question is still found.
Without any doubt, the food that captured my soul over 6 years ago in that alley is Bún Mộc.
Perhaps that bowl of Bún Mộc got swept up in my fascination with a new culture, an ancient Asian neighborhood, and wonderful new friends as I first arrived to live in Vietnam. Or maybe it was the setting - the Bún Mộc served up early each morning by a middle-aged woman hunched over a 25 liter pot of simmering broth on the side of the alley, assisted by a smiling older woman standing at the front entrance who took my order — always đầy đủ (a little of everything), and supported by an even more ancient woman who sat quietly behind the others preparing the green glasses of rau ma (blended vegetable drink), the white glasses of sửa đậu nành (soy milk); and the golden glasses of trà đá (ice tea). Or perhaps it was those meatballs floating in the Bún Mộc broth.
Most balls of ground meat in Vietnam seem waxy with a high content of gelatinous material to bind them into balls. But here, the pork and mushroom mixture was freshly rolled into meaty and crumbly balls before being dropped into the soup broth (I think the same pork stuffing recipe I used to stuff mushroom caps at Thanksgiving in California). Or finally, it could have been the combination of all the food items consisting đầy đủ that were dropped into the simmering broth just as it was brought to the table – slices of liver, kidney, bamboo, and pork rib. Oh – that bamboo!
So, it was a difficult decision four years ago when I was deciding whether or not to relocate to Saigon. The Bún Mộc weighed heavily on the Hanoi side of the scale. But, when all was said and done, love prevailed and tipped the balance to Saigon. (There were other factors involved in the decision, but clearly these were the key ones!) So here I am in Ho Chi Minh City. But, til this day, I continue my search for that fantasy bowl of Bún Mộc here.
In fact, very near my home here, just one block away, is a woman who opens up her private living room early each morning, sets up a few tables and fills bowls with her recipe of Bún Mộc. Interestingly, it’s not very delicious, but its wonderfully fresh, clean, and healthy tasting – with large chunks of carrot and turnip complementing the tender pork meat. As Hai says, It’s a “quiet” food. That is, it doesn’t offer flavor bursts, but is gently pleasing to the taste buds. So, on occasion, I get up early (she closes at 8:00 am) to enjoy the health benefits of this “quiet” local Saigon version of Bún Mộc.
But, most often these days, I enjoy a bowl at Bún Mộc Thanh Mai.
First of all, it’s conveniently located only one block away from my health club. So after my 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer or a one-hour yoga class, I can stroll over to enjoy lunch there. They close their doors at 1:30 pm so I must plan accordingly.
The Bún Mộc here is not Hanoi – but it’s good, very good. Sadly, t’s missing the bamboo, the liver, the kidney, the fabulous meatballs, and the collection of women sitting in that ancient alley. But, it’s good- very good. The pork rib is very meaty and very tender. The green leafy herbs and bean sprouts are fresh and in generous quantities (get them steamed before dropping them into your bowl of Bún Mộc. ) Various pressed meat and fish balls (not too gelatinous) float beside the pork rib. I suggest giving the broth a “kick – up” by adding a bit of chilly pepper paste and – if you dare – a small amount of mắm tôm. Note, mắm tôm is intense .. . add it in eye-dropper proportions. As a heavily fermented shrimp paste, it is an “acquired taste”, but absolutely makes the Bún Mộc far more flavorful and enjoyable, assuming you have acquired that taste.
And, perhaps best of all, Bún Mộc Thanh Mai is one of the few eateries that both do justice to traditional Vietnamese cooking AND is located at “ground zero” tourist central Saigon – just a one-block walk from Cho Ben Thanh!
A YUM YUM eating experience.
Bún Mộc Thanh Mai
14 Truong Dinh
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