Even amongst the Vietnamese, this noodle soup from the North is lesser known. Bun Thang (pronounced “tang”) is served with rice vermicelli noodles and topped with julienned omelette and pork roll a.k.a. gio (north) or cha lua (south) and shredded poached chicken. The broth is made with chicken and seasoned with dried shrimp or sometimes dried cuttlefish and fish sauce (of course) and sometimes fermented shrimp paste. Into the soup goes a generous sprinkling of chopped rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) which I didn’t have since this was a quick bowl my mom put together and did not get a chance to go to the store.
At the table, some folks like to add a bit of fermented shrimp paste into their bowl. Some like to add a drop of “ca cuong” the essence from a giant water bug. Supposedly if it was the real stuff, people would just dip the tip of a toothpick into the little bottle and swirl it into their broth. Nowadays, the artificial stuff is more common and is dispensed with an eye dropper. A drop or two is all it takes!
My mom first learned this dish when she married into my dad’s northern family. Her mother in law directed her to shred the chicken which my mom did into bite sized pieces. Her mother in law got upset and told her to re-do it! She tore them into thinner pieces which was still not good enough! My grandmother finally said that all the pieces should be as thin as the noodles. The long thin strips of the toppings tangling up with the thin long noodles gives a unique textural experience. My mom still loves to tell that story about how her first time was not good enough and that the “proper” way was for noodle thin toppings. As you can see from the picture, as she has aged she has lost the patience to make it the “proper” way! A google image search will show you how fancy / creative people get with their preparation and presentation.
On the other hand, this was a quick soup Mom put together. When she makes a larger batch for the entire family, she actually does sit there and shred the chicken into noodle thin shreds. After an afternoon of hauling mulch in my parent’s yard, this bowl really hit the spot!
If you have the opportunity for a homemade bowl of bun thang, jump on it! Not many people know it and not many restaurants serve it. A quick search on Yelp reveals that Pho Kim Long and Thien Long in San Jose have it on their menus. I’ve never tried them though. Me? I’ve only ever had my mom’s, my sister in law’s, and my own homemade bun thang.