Saturday, March 29, 2008

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue is a noodle soup from the region of Hue, the old imperial capital of Viet Nam. When in Hue with my sisters, we completely forgot to order any Bun Bo Hue from anywhere to eat. We were much too excited by the vegetarian banquet put out before us, and at another restaurant, distracted by the flags that they gave to each table of Viet Kieu. They gave us the Stars and Stripes of the US, before we had even said anything. I looked at it for awhile wonderingly, and then, while the waitress was out of the room, got up and went over to the display of flags and exchanged the Stars and Stripes for the Australian Union Jack and Southern Cross combo. I plonked that flag down on our table , and my sisters affectionately shook their heads at me. Another table watched my progress and then did the same: exchanging their Stars and Strips for the red and white maple leaf affair of the Canadian flag. We all giggled conspiratorially together when the waitress came back and looked from our table, to their table, and then over to the flag table. But she neither frowned nor smiled, so what we had done must have been a neutral act.

It also rained the entire couple of days that we were in Hue, so we did not wander the streets very much; we were chaperoned by our grumpy tour guide from monument, to temple, to imperial palace grounds, to hotel, to market, to restaurant. I found our tour guide extremely difficult to understand: the Hue accent is mellifluous, gentle and musical; the words flow together. I need sharp distinctions in my Viet words to know what is being said. After all, my family speak Viet in sharp ringing tones, like the fishwives they all once were, or were descended from. Initially, I frowned at our tour guide, listening as hard as I could, and then I would look over at my eldest sister, who also looked like she was struggling to understand. If she was struggling, I had no chance. Eventually, I gave up. I wandered away from our guide a number of times to read signs in English, and I don't think she liked that very much. I also had my lovely red raincoat, so the rain was but minor hindrance to my explorations. She did not like the rain, and she would rush us from one shelter under turned up eaves to another, or from the van door to the inside of temple grounds. I wanted to wander and explore the grounds themselves, not merely the inside of buildings. So I did. My sisters tried to tell her to leave me be, but she would try to call me in to listen to her guiding. I told her that I was happy exploring on my own and that I had trouble understanding her because my Vietnamese was very poor. It was easiest for me to surreptitiously tell my sisters that I would see them shortly and wander away, into the rain, where she would not follow.

As we drove away from Hue, shortly after lunch, I cried out, "Oh no! We did not eat Bun Bo Hue in Hue!" My eldest sister said, "We can stop." I replied that I was much too full. Her response? "Eat it in Sai Gon, it will probably be better anyway." And we all chuckled, suspecting this to be true. I was not overly impressed by Hue, but I think that was the fault of our guide, and not of the town, which has much crumbling imperial and colonial granduer to recommend it. Another time, I will visit and I will not be shackled by no grumpy tour guide!

I decided to try to cook Bun Bo Hue recently. So, it being roughly three weeks since the last time I had spoken to my parents, I telephoned my mother. I informed her of my intention to cook Bun Bo Hue and asked her what the ingredients were. I had done a brief internet search to try to locate a recipe, but failed.

I did find some interesting information, however. A number of sites (don't ask, when I google, I open loads of links and then close them again. I only remember the ones that were useful, and sometimes, not even them) referred to Bun Bo Hue as 'spicy pho'. I thought this was odd, and much pleased when I read Wandering Chopsticks' comment that Bun Bo Hue is not pho. I like her comment a lot:-

Mini-rant here. No it is NOT pho. Calling bun bo Hue a variation of pho is like saying fettucine alfredo is a version of spaghetti. Sure it's easy to reference a more popular dish when trying to describe it, but in both cases: different noodles + different flavors = different dishes entirely. OK?

Tangentially, I also found this and this. The first is a recipe from Khmer Krom Recipes for a soup remarkably like Bun Bo Hue, but of Cambodian origin, and the second is an interview with the author of the website, Mylinh Nakry, by another blogger on Cambodian food, Phonmenon. I am probably going to get myself into trouble here. Oh well.

Mylinh Nakry, of Khmer Krom Recipes, says:

Vietnamese people loves this Khmer Krom soup so much that they changed Khmer Krom recipe name to Vietnamese name *Bun bo Hue*, and never gives us any credit which is no surprise to me since they also took our land. On 6-4-1949, French government illegally gave *Kampuchea Krom*( now know as South Vietnam) to Viet Nam. Hue (now know as Central Vietnam)was part of Champa that Khmer Empire was once ruled Champa and most of South East Asia.

She also makes this claim of Bun Rieu and pho, and probably some other dishes as well, except that I don't know; I was looking, and then started to feel a bit silly. I cannot speak to her claim about the origin of Bun Bo Hue, or Bun Rieu, or pho. I do not know enough about the history of food and politics in Viet Nam and Cambodia / Kampuchea. I am prepared to accept that the borders of the region of what is now known as Viet Nam that borders what is now known as Cambodia were porous, and that cultural exchange, including inter-marriage, linguistic exchange and food exchange would have occurred. Perhaps one cuisine influenced another; more likely, the exchange was both ways. I am not prepared to accept that when Kampuchea Krom and Champa existed, one culture and one people and one food type existed and then continued, unchanged, to now, or to 1949. Nor am I prepared to accept that the Vietnamese people who first made Bun Bo Hue appropriated a Khmer Krom dish, and renamed it, in the same way they appropriated the land. It's just not that simple.

Maybe they made something like it. Maybe the Cambodians used a spice, or herb, that the Vietnamese had not before and they thought, "Gosh, that's tasty. Why don't I chuck me some of that into this here soup I be making?" (Although perhaps not in a fake Aussie/Irish brogue.) Probably, the people who lived in the Champa kingdom are the ancestors of the people who live there now and their diaspora. As now, there were some indigenous and some not. But eventually, if you just keep living there, you belong there. Who were they? Cambodian? Viet? It would be fiendishly difficult to disentangle what 'belongs' to one culture / ethnic group or another. And for what? A claim to authenticity? Nationalism? Parochialism? To what end?

I'm very pleased that Mylinh Nakry feels strongly about her cultural / ethnic identity (however she would describe it) and applaud her attempt, via her website, to bring some attention to how Cambodian cuisine has languished in the shadows of its neighbours. But not in this simplistic way, that is so potentially damaging. I also don't condone the hateful, and hate-mongering, and indeed contemptuously ridiculing, comments posted to Phnomenon's site about Mylinh Nakry either. I got myself kind of lost in it. First I was mildly amused, and then outraged, and then, just saddened.

Whatever its origin, it's a delicious dish. And I, because of my ethnic background, know it as Bun Bo Hue.

Back to my story.

When I spoke to my mother, to ask her the ingredients of Bun Bo Hue, she asked me if the local Asian grocery store stocked stock cubes. Perplexed, I said that I thought they did. She told me to find the one for Bun Bo Hue, and to use pork feet instead of beef bones in my stock. I said, "But don't you make it from, you know, lemongrass and chilli and other things?" She replied, "No. I never cooked you Bun Bo Hue. Or if I did, I probably made it from the stock cube. Ask your brother-in-law. He knows how to cook it." I was flummoxed. Had I never had Um-cooked Bun Bo Hue? I wracked my memory, and decided it was probably true. I had eaten Bun Bo Hue with my family, but rarely. More likely, we would have had Bun Rieu (which is on my list of things to work out how to cook). If we wanted to eat Bun Bo Hue, we would ask my sister in law to cook it. After further miscellaneous chit-chat with my mother, I rung off.

I then telephoned my brother in law, to ask him. I did not telephone my sister in law because she is more difficult to track down. After a chat with my sister, and telling her the true reason for why I had called, I spoke to my brother in law. He is the pho cook in the family. He also used to work in restaurants and can roll spring rolls at an alarming speed. We competed once (I'm a mean spring-roll-er myself, from way back) and he won easily; he rolled four for every one of mine. "So you want to cook Bun Bo Hue?" he started. "Yep", said I. "With pork or with beef?" "With beef!" It is, Bun Bo Hue after all (bo means beef). "Okay. Well make sure you have oxtail then. That's the best meat. Nothing from the shoulder, okay?" I made agreeing sounds although I was already going to disobey him. "Next, if you go to the Asian supermarket, you can buy stock cubes. You can get Bun Bo Hue stock cubes." "What?" I burst out. "That's what Um told me to do! I don't want stock cubes. I want the ingredients!" "Oh, okay," he conceded, "I just wanted to make it easier for you."

Stock cubes! I can't believe my family use stock cubes.

And on that note, this post is long enough already. Next post will be the recipe. Promise.


Wandering Chopsticks said...

Ha! I had to say that b/c another blogger reviewed the same restaurant but called bun bo Hue pho gone wild and it's sooo not even the same thing. But as I don't like to go around being snotty on other people's blogs, I moved my mini rant over to mine. :P I get that if you're not VNese, your frame of reference for food might be limited and it's easier to reference a dish that you do know, but I do think my comparison that Italian spaghetti is not fettucine alfredo is apt. Even those unfamiliar with VNese food will at least agree that those two Italian dishes are not the same.

Food, culture, and identity are all in flux. Think of pho. Invented in the north, and no I do not think it originated with Cambodians, the version we often eat is heavily southern-influenced. Or cha gio, it's quite common now to use Chinese egg roll wrappers, and yet few would say that version isn't "authentic." Anyway, I think it a little odd that she's so anti-VNese considering she has a VNese first and last name. I think she'd have a stronger case to argue that Khmer culture and cuisine influenced Thailand. But in all honesty, I think finding commonalities in cuisine should be celebrated, not used as a means to be divisive. Filipinos also use shrimp paste and fish sauce. There's no shared border with Vietnam. So how would she explain that? I think environment plays a bigger role. No refrigeration, so how do people preserve fish and shrimp so that we still get our protein?

I've had a couple of requests for bun bo Hue but it's not one of my favorites so I haven't gotten around to it yet. Also, making big pots of soup is a pain when I'm not feeding a crowd.

I think I know in general what to do, but I'd have to call my mom and ask for sure. And nope, my momma never uses stock cubes. She's an everything-from-scratch cook. Makes her own banh canh noodles too.

I can't understand Hue accents either. But then, no one can. :P I think it sounds rather like a Scottish brogue.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

OK, now she gets a little absurd. How can char siu have originated with Cambodians when one of the key ingredients is Chinese 5 spice powder?

I have no problems saying xa xiu is simply the VNese pronunciation of char siu, and that it's originally a Cantonese recipe. Sure there's enmity with the long-time Chinese domination of Vietnam, but I have yet to hear that extended to food. Most cuisines will acknowledge other culture's influence. But Cambodia's heyday was more than half a millennium ago, and even then I'm not sure how much influence it had beyond warring with the neighboring Chams and Thais.

Of far greater impact on VNese cuisine is French and Chinese. The former for bread, coffee, yogurt, flan, etc. The Chinese for settling Saigon and the rest of South Vietnam 300 years ago and introducing wontons, mi noodles, etc.

Anyway, sorry, I got a bit annoyed. I might have agreed that cultural appropriation happened, but not nearly to the extent that she claims.

Oanh said...

Oh, Wandering Chopsticks, you have to put down the Khmer Krom website, and back away from it. Slowly, slowly. Now breathe.


You know much more about VNese food than me. All I really had was a hunch that she had to be wrong, but no more than that. I did not linger too long on her site because I found her ... divisive. Your word is a most apt description for how she writes of alleged VN appropriation of Khmer recipes.

I have to resist typing her name as My Linh, rather than Mylinh, but clearly that's how she writes her name, so I should follow. It's a reasonably common name, though, of the region, in variations? There's Mei Ling for example, too. Danh, I am not so sure about. It certainly looks very VNese to me. But I did not look into the names, or her, very much. So I refrain.

No need to apologise to me! Your thoughts are always valued, and interesting.

I'm much more of a 'melting pot' kind of theorist for food, culture and identity. Chuck it all in, see what comes out, and, with respect and good communication, we can all get along and enjoy each other, or agree to disagree and move along.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Haha! Well, I was also going to add that her argument that bun bo Hue is actually Cambodian b/c it originated in Hue, which used to belong to the Cham, which used to belong to the Khmer kingdom as highly doubtful. For one thing, the Cham and Khmers were historic enemies. Depictions of their battles were carved into the walls of Angkor Wat.

Anyway, I'm not getting the whole 1949 handing over "Cambodia" to South Vietnam part b/c it's been Vietnam for hundreds of years before that. Ming dynasty generals fleeing the Manchus settled Saigon and the rest of the southern part of Vietnam more than 300 years ago. If she's still bummed about Cambodia having been lost Saigon and the Mekong Delta, that's akin to the Brits lamenting about losing the American colonies, or the Mexicans losing California and Arizona to the Americans. :P Or if we bring it back to food, I guess it's like the Chinese claiming all Italian pasta dishes are really Chinese creations. Blah!

Dude! I have no problems with reasoned discussions about cultural appropriation, backed with reasonable arguments of course. But she takes it to an extreme by insisting all Vietnamese recipes are really Cambodian. Many times, it's not even a Cambodian version of the recipe but exactly a VNese recipe. Like say the difference between Thai and VNese papaya salads. And seriously, many of her recipes are VNese, she just gives a Cambodian translation to them b/c many of those recipes I've never seen in a Cambodian restaurant. Because they're VNese! Huh!

I think far, far better, had been if she wrote about how Cambodian cuisine is different from its neighboring Thai, Laotian, and VNese cuisines. Her argument is that it's the same, and that the VNese stole it all. And frankly, if one simply went to dine at a VNese and then at a Cambodian restaurant, her arguments fall apart.

I think my main problem is that I see food as the least intimidating way to introduce people to another culture. She squandered the opportunity to educate others about a much overlooked cuisine and culture. And that really does a disservice to the vast majority of Cambodians.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Not to belabor the point. But our whole discussion is particularly sad because Dith Pran passed away today. I'm trying to think of what to write on my own blog, but haven't thought it through yet.

I was reading his story about his return to Cambodia in 1989 and this paragraph in particular resonates.


"On the way to the Monorom Hotel, where I am staying, we pass a boulevard that used to be called Kampuchea Krom, meaning ''lower Kampuchea,'' a reference to the southeastern portion of the Khmer Empire that was swallowed by the Vietnamese a few centuries ago. Under the present regime, the road has been renamed Kampuchea Vietnam. Because of Kampuchea Krom, generations of Cambodians were taught to hate the Vietnamese. My generation was told in school that our ancestors who fought and lost the war were tortured by the Vietnamese. The majority of Cambodians still do not trust the Vietnamese, even though they realize the Vietnamese saved them from the Khmer Rouge, who killed more than a million of their own people."

Anonymous said...

that other blogger is dillusional...

if you want to talk about stealing land she got to get her facts right. yes the viet did invade and take over land - from the 'thu*o*.ng" people...the bulk of them were 'amalgamated' into viet but you can still find some of them living in the hills..and their food is not similar to stuff like pho or bun bo hue....they may have their origins from cambodia (look, dress, culture etc has some similarities) but they are classified as a seperate sub group..

and if she plans to start ranting about the viets stealing the land and wantin everything back, then us aussies had better get moving and giving it all back to the aborigines too!!

some people are just plain ignorant yet dont realise it so talk crap.



Hedgehog said...

How can someone say that the Vietnamese steal bun bo Hue from the Cambodian? more importantly, because of the history of the region, South East Asian food share a lot of similarities in ingredients, style of cooking etc so I don't think there's any cuisine that can claim not to be influenced by at least another. I think she's just being a bit over-zealous.
By the way, I've got some bun bo hue cubes in my cupboard so if you need some drop me a line I'll post it down to you, not a problem :D

Anonymous said...

I stumbled onto this blog by accident, but I 100 percent agree with the user named wandering chopsticks. I have to let you guys know, I stumbled upon that insane website "khmerkromrecipes" years ago, and it has been a subject of ridicule on many vietnamese message boards for a long time, perhaps since it came online. I too am eager to acknowledge cross cultural influences and any southern dishes we may share with cambodians such as canh chua (my cambodian friends all eat this), or even more obviously hu tieu nam vang, but like wandering chopsticks said she even goes as far as to claim xa xieu and five spice powder is a cambodian food.

if you look throughout her entire website, it's almost like every single vietnamese food I grew up with both at home and eating at restaurants was supposedly cambodian in origin. I have cambodian friends and I have eaten at cambodian restaurants, my cambodian friends 100 percent acknowledge which foods are vietnamese vs. cambodian. there are many vietnamese dishes eaten by cambodians which acknowledge the vietnamese origin by not even changing the name. one such example are dishes with the word "banh" which is a vietnamese word denoting dishes which involve bread/flour or whatnot.

southern vietnamese, obviously because of geographical reasons have been much more exposed to cambodian culture but even then you will notice how vietnamese culture as a whole has remained extremely distinct from its other southeast asian neighbors regardless. I would agree with the assertion that vietnamese cuisine is much more influenced by chinese and french cuisines.

I've also found that laotian, vietnamese and cambodian cuisines are very different despite our geography. of course we all use certain shared ingredients in abundance such as fish sauce, many herbs and greens, etc.

mal nguyen said...

please check out our pictures about our Hue's special dishes at

mal nguyen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Lol go around Internet searching something news I see bunch of idiot fellow khmer krom who is blaming vietnamese dish is original from them just because they are living in South vietnam it was before belong to khmer lol why they can just forget the passed and move on.

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