Saturday, September 5, 2015

My Mother's Bun Rieu Cua (Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup)--about 8 servings

my mother's bun rieu cua (Vietnamese crab noodle soup)
My Mother's Bun Rieu Cua (Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup)--about 8 servings

Most people are probably familiar with or have eaten pho (one of the more famous Vietnamese noodle soups). However, some people may not have heard of or eaten bún riêu cua. It is another favorite noodle soup among my family and relatives usually made from live crabs. If you go to a Vietnamese restaurant you may not find it made with as much crab as in this least I have not come across any so far. In the old days, and still common in some villages especially those in the Mekong Delta (in Vietnam) where rice is cultivated the soup base is made from hand pounding the tiny fresh water rice paddy crabs to a pulp. The crab bits and crab liquid make the soup base known as "rieu". This traditional method continues to exist but it is tedious work especially cleaning the tiny crabs!

There are many ways to make this delicious crab flavored rieu but here is how my mother prefers to make hers. She lives in Maine and has abundant access to fresh off-the-boat seafood from her fisherman friends/former co-workers. She prefers to use both Maine crab and Maine lobster shells to make the broth and then uses the crab meat that she laboriously picked out to make the delicious key ingredients that I call "soup essence" or "soup base". Some cookbooks will tell you to use tamarind for the base. However, the people I met in my grandmother's village (a few miles from Soc Trang), including my mother use tomato and never tamarind. This way the rieu will have the sour taste and red color. Some people like to use annatto seeds to add extra red shade to the rieu. Like pho and other Vietnamese noodle soups the bun rieu is eaten with lots of fresh herbs and vegetables. The typical ones are Thai basil, mint, perilla, bean sprouts, and finely split water spinach stalks. The split spinach stalks are soaked in ice cold water to create beautiful curls. In Vietnam people generally use a vegetable peeler to create strands from these stalks. The extra final topping ingredients include fried tofu, congealed cooked pork blood cubes, fermented shrimp sauce, fish sauce and lime juice. Since not everyone in my family likes the taste or smell of the strong shrimp sauce, we omit it from the soup base. A dollop of it is only added as part of the final topping or in a side dish when making individual bowls. This soup is delicious and quite filling. When I was in Soctrang, Vietnam this past year I saw pureed rice paddy crab sold in a large bucket at an indoor department/supermarket called Co-Op Mart. If I did not see the label I would not have guessed what was in the contents since it looks like some sort of unappetizing gray sauce.

In recent years the invasive green crabs have made constant bad news for our ecosystem along the entire East Coast of the United States and probably up into Canada. Apparently they are multiplying rapidly and are eating and killing off other native marine life. I agreed with what some people say about us feasting on these critters instead of letting them win. Here is a good article from the Boston Globe, Green crabs are multiplying. Should we eat the enemy? You bettcha! I think these crab species would make a tasty, I am a huge advocate to start cooking these invaders! I have not come across any despite walking along the New Hampshire shore regularly. 

Seafood Broth


About 1 gallon water
2 lobster shells and legs
5 crab shells and legs
1/2 medium sized onion
About 3 Tbsp fish sauce


In a large pot, add water, lobster, crab and onion. Cook over medium high heat. Once the water boils turn the heat lower to simmer. Let the liquid simmer for about an hour. Add fish sauce near the end of cooking. Strain and discard the shells and onion. Reserve the broth.

*Gently crush the lobster and crab legs with a mallet before adding to the pot. This helps the flavor seep out into the broth. If you have more shells and legs by all mean add them. The more the better.

Crab Soup Essence or Soup Base (Rieu)

I called this important part of the bun rieu "soup essence" or "soup base". Without these key ingredients this noodle dish would be quite bland.

purchasing coolers of fresh off-the-boat
Maine crab and lobsters
(Bucksport, Maine 2015)

cooked Maine crabs
ingredients for the rieu
cooked pot of soup base (rieu)

1 Tbsp oil
About 1 cup ground pork (more or less depending on your preference)
1/2 medium sized onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of black pepper
1-2 tomatoes, deseeded and peeled or unpeeled, cut in wedges
One 14.5-oz can unsalted diced tomato (or 2 large tomatoes, deseeded, peeled and diced)
One 5.6 oz can of minced crab in spices (gia vi nau bun rieu in Vietnamese)
1 cup cooked crab roe/liver
2 scallions, chopped
About 2 Tbsp fish sauce
Seafood broth (see above)
1 egg, beaten
2 cups crab meat (or meat from about 5 Maine crabs)
About 12 pieces of fried tofu


1) Add about 1 tsp of garlic and 1 Tbsp chopped onion with the pork. Add black pepper and sprinkle of sugar. Mix gently and set aside.
2) Heat a pan with oil. Once the oil is hot, add the rest of garlic. Saute about 1/2 minute.
3) Add the rest of the chopped onion. Saute for about a minute or until it is soft.
4) Add tomato. Saute about 2 minutes.
5) Add minced crab, cooked crab roe/liver and scallions. Saute about 1-2 minutes.
6) Season with fish sauce.
7) Pour the mixture into the Seafood Broth. Turn the heat up so the broth will be gently simmering.
8) Stir the pot with a spatula in gentle one way motion while slowly pouring in the egg mixture. This will make the egg strands.*
9) Add the fried tofu.
10) Add the crab meat. Avoid over stirring.
11) May add more fish sauce and sugar to taste.
12) Keep heat to low in order for the soup base to remain hot.

*The minced crab in spices come in a can or a glass jar. You can purchase them at an Asian market. This will add more flavor to your soup.
*If you can add freshly hand-picked crab meat it is preferred over the canned crab meat. There is a huge difference in taste and flavor when the meat comes from fresh crab. For convenient and access it fine to substitute canned real crab meat. Although I would avoid using imitation crab legs.
*Add as little or as much of the pork and crab as you prefer. You may substitute pork for other meat such as turkey or chicken. 
*To make beautiful egg strands you can add the whisked egg in a bag, cut a small hole in one corner. While the soup base is simmering, with one hand keep stirring the pot gently in the same motion, with the other hand pour the egg out of the hole into the pot. The one direction motion of the hot liquid will cook the egg into strings instead of lumps.
*Some people prefer to mix the crab meat, pork, and egg to form tiny dumplings and float these into the broth. Some even make the mixture into a small meatloaf and once cooked sliced the pieces to add as part of the topping.
*If you prefer more red color you can add annatto oil to the soup essence.

Herbs/Vegetables (add as little or as much according to your preference)

Water spinach (rau muong), leaves removed, finely split and soaked in ice cold water for 10 minutes, then drained
Banana blossom, finely shredded, soaked in water and squeezed out water when ready to use and eat
Bean sprouts (gia)
Thai basil (rau que)
Mint (rau hung)
Vietnamese balm (rau kinh gioi)
Shiso or perilla (rau tia to)
Lime wedges
Chili peppers

*The above items are the typical herb/vegetable toppings used in bun rieu found in Soctrang (Vietnam) according to my mother and cousin Ngoc. Ngoc tells me that in Soctrang (where she resides) some people also add cilantro but the Vietnamese balm is not commonly available. In Maine this Vietnamese balm grows in abundance in my parents backyard. Some restaurants in the United States may have other vegetables such as shredded cabbage (can be either or both white and red) and shredded banana blossom. The cabbage works well as a substitute; it's accessible and economical especially if you do not live near an Asian market. However, adding it is not so authentic.

water spinach (rau muong)
water spinach (rau muong), finely split
and soaked in ice cold water 10 minutes, drained
Condiments (add as little or as much according to your preference)

Fine shrimp sauce or shrimp paste (mam ruoc in Vietnamese)
Any good fish sauce
Chili pepper
Extra crab meat


Boil the rice stick noodles or rice vermicelli (known as bun in Vietnamese) according to the package instructions and drain. Cover the noodles with a wet towel or cover to prevent drying out.

*I don't have access to fresh rice stick so I purchase dried packages from the Asian markets. Each package is about 0.88 lb. You can use about 2 packages for this pot.

To Assemble A Bowl of Bun Rieu (Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup)

There are many ways to put together a bowl of bun rieu. Here is my way. Take a large bowl, add some cooked rice noodles. Add bean sprouts (this way they will be partially cooked) and pour the crab soup essence with broth on top. Remove some of the broth from the bowl back into the pot and pour in new hot broth back into the bowl. This will warm up the rice noodles nicely. Next garnish the bowl with a few pieces of fried tofu, torn herbs, finely shredded water spinach, a dollop of fine shrimp sauce, a few drizzle of fish sauce, chili pepper, extra crab meat and a squeeze of lime.

As you can see from this post that there can be a little delay for me in making the food to writing and finally to publishing the recipe! This particular batch was made back in July. My parents, husband and I ate half (in Maine) on the day we made it and I took the other half home (to New Hampshire) in a large container and kept it in the freezer. Exactly 2 months later I removed it from the freezer. Try submerging the frozen container in cold water for quick and easy removal of the ice block. I slowly simmer the whole thing, ice and all in a large pot over medium low heat. After all this time in the freezer this soup base is still amazingly tasty. At first I thought the crab would have a strong odor or taste after sitting in the freezer. Yet I was surprised it has not noticeably altered the taste. I had few of the typical herbs/vegetables (see Herbs section from above) used in bun rieu so I added what I had in my kitchen; finely sliced cabbage, red perilla leaves, mint, Chinese chives and lime. These substituted items are not ideal for this type of noodle soup but the result was still filling and delicious.

mint, perilla, cabbage, lime, Chinese chives
bun rieu with substituted vegetables and herbs found in my kitchen
with a dollop of chili sauce and fermented shrimp sauce

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