Bún riêu is another very popular and flavor-packed Vietnamese rice noodle soup loaded with herbs and vegetables. Compared to the other Vietnamese soup recipes we have here, this is the only one with shrimp, crab, tomato and tofu.
We’ll cook this with a relatively easy method, but still delicious results. If you want to get a little crazier with effort I’ll let you know how to mod the recipe below too!
A lot about this soup makes me think it was born out of convenience and necessity. Just about all the ‘general’ Vietnamese restaurants around me in Little Saigon (Southern California) will have this since it is pretty simple. If the restaurant has a pot of meat broth ready, they can cobble together the rest with other common Vietnamese kitchen and pantry items.
Skills-wise, this soup is pretty easy to make once you know what’s in it. And if you’re up for it, there are a few mods I have below you can make to the recipe if you’re so inclined.
Freshly Pounded Crabs?
The meatball looking fellas in this soup, called gach, or rieu, were originally made with pounded baby crabs in Vietnam. We’re not going to pound or blend any crabs for this recipe but we’re going to substitute a 5.6 ounce can of Lee’s brand Minced Crab or Prawns, and some fresh crab meat instead.
Crab pounding for this reminds me of David Chang’s thoughts on lollipopping chicken drumsticks: a pain in the butt to do, so if someone’s doing it for you it’s a real sign of love.
My own mother has never gone through this trouble for me or the family, and you’re highly unlikely going to find any freshly pounded crabs at restaurants for this soup–not at <$10 a bowl anyway. Some of my family members have the patience to work in fresh baby crabs into their rieu though.
My maternal great grandmother loved to cook and was apparently pretty crafty and resourceful. Lacking proper tools to pound crabs when in the States, she fashioned a mortar and pestle from an old army helmet and a baseball bat.
Homemade vs. Canned Broth
One of the many flavor components for this soup is broth. You’ll have better tasting soup and a bunch of extra meat you can add to the bowls of the carnivores of your family if you want to make your own pork broth. However, if you want to go with canned broth or stock, there are many other flavor components that make the soup so don’t despair if you go the canned route.
Relative to other soups, like bún bò Huế, some people think there’s not enough meat in bún riêu. There’s so much flavor and interest going on already, in my opinion. We already have the rieu (meatballs), tofu, tomato, and a ton of veggies.
However if you notice at restaurants, some other bún riêu recipes, or realize Americans enjoy obscene amounts of meat in their diet, there can be more meat added. If you have the patience to make your own broth for this soup recipe, simply using pork ribs with meat on it, you can omit the canned chicken broth.
Yes chicken broth is not the same as pork broth but I’ve learned through a lot of my mom’s cooking that she will use broths interchangeably, especially when it’s not a clear and simplified recipe where the plain broth itself should shine, such as a light chicken pho.
Fermented Shrimp Paste
Some shy away from the funk of this stuff, but its necessary to hit the right flavor target of this soup. We can control the aroma if its not truly your thing.
Oddly enough this makes me think of the show Brew Masters, in which Sam Calgione, president of Dog Fish Head brewery, tells us that they will add more of an ingredient during the cooking process so it has a more intense flavor. If they want more of that fruit or ingredient to show off its aroma, it’s saved for later in the process.
So similarly, if you want less of the potent aroma of shrimp paste in your soup, add more to the broth instead of adding it to your bowl as you eat–this is the proportion we skew towards in this recipe. For this recipe we’ll use the paste from Lee Kum Kee since it has a balanced level of saltiness we can work with.
My mom stumbled upon this trick when dining at a friend’s house. We associated ketchup with french fries so it’s a little unexpected but it’s a pretty neat idea for convenience. This soup already has tomatoes in it.
And the ketchup also adds salt, sugar, vinegar, and color to this soup. This mostly saves you the trouble of buying a whole bottle of vinegar you may not use, or buying a can of tomato paste you’d only use a tablespoon of and end up wasting the rest.
But yeah if you’re weird about it, we do get acid into the soup when you squeeze a lime into your bowl just before eating, and you can just use tomato paste and even annatto seeds for coloring like we did in the bún bò Huế recipe.
Herbs and Veggies
Is a food actually Vietnamese if it isn’t accompanied by a truckload of veggies?
Kinh gioi or Vietnamese Balm is the most important herb in this soup. Second up is your typical mint. Tia to aka. perilla aka shiso, also goes well with this but is optional if you don’t have it available.
As for veggies you may notice the photos are missing rau muong or water spinach since this was out of season. Also known in Tagalog as kangkong, ong choy in Cantonese, this veg is seasonal and can get pricey, upwards of $3+ a pound or be simply not available when off season.
Water spinach is typically added raw to bún riêu. To make the stems easier to chew, they are usually split using a tool made just for this, creatively called a water spinach splitter or dao che rau muong.
- 50 g shallots about four large cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp neutral cooking oil
- 1.5 to 2 lb tomatoes quartered (any type)
- 1 teaspoon fermented shrimp paste. Lee Kum Kee brand. Diluted in a small bowl w a bit of water to ensure even dispersion in the broth.
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp salt
- 1-2 tbsp rock sugar granulated is ok too
- 4 tbsp ketchup
- 3 - 14.5 oz cans of chicken broth or make your own pork broth with water and 1 lb pork ribs
- 3 - 14.5 oz cans of water measure with your broth cans
- 1-2 tsp monosodium glutamate seasoning
Rieu / Gach / Meatballs
- 25 g shallot sliced (about two large cloves)
- 57 g / 2 oz fresh uncooked shrimp shells removed, deveined.
- 300 g / 10.6 oz ground pork
- 1 - 5.6 oz can minced prawn or minced crab with spices. Lee brand.
- 57 g / 2 oz steamed or canned crab optional. If using frozen or canned, lightly squeeze to remove excess moisture.
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 5 stalks green onions cut into 1.5" pieces
- 1/2 to 1 lb deep fried tofu
- 1/2 lb raw bean sprouts
- 1 bunch kinh gioi / Vietnamese balm optional
- 1 bunch mint
- 1 bunch tia to / purple perilla optional
- shrimp paste on the side
- sliced limes
- 4 thai chiles
- 1 lb dried rice vermicelli sticks small noodle size. Thap Chua brand (but any will do)
- Cook noodles according to package instructions, split between 4-5 bowls
- Thinly slice shallots, add oil to a pan and saute until light brown.
- Add quartered tomatoes, stir fry for 3-5 minutes until slightly soft.
- Add shallots, tomatoes, and all remaining soup ingredients into a large pot.
- Raise to high heat until it hits a boil, and boils for five minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low or low, so it maintains a low boil.
Rieu / Gach / Meatballs
- Add shallots into a small food processor, pulse until finely chopped.
- Add shrimp, pulse 5-6 times.
- Add remaining ingredients (except crab and green onion) and pulse a few times until evenly mixed.
- Pour into a mixing bowl, add crab and lightly mix with a spoon.
- Using a soup spoon, scoop 1-2 tbsp size balls (your choice!) into the pot until you use it all
- Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil, then drop heat to a low boil. At most it should take 20 minutes to cook the meatballs all the way through. Check doneness by breaking a meatball in half to make sure its not soft or raw inside.
- During the last five minutes of cooking, drop in the chopped green onion so it slightly softens
- Evenly divide contents of the soup pot between your 4-5 bowls.
- Serve a communal accoutrement plate on the side so each guest can customize their own.