Fermented fish noodle soup: A captivating southern specialty

By Khanh Thien   January 9, 2023 | 06:46 pm PT
Chau sells Mekong Delta-style fermented fish noodle soup in Saigon and for almost 10 years, her restaurant on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street in District 3 has been a hit.

Its piping hot bowls of broth prepared with fermented fish include a variety of seafood as well as slices of roast pork, vegetables and a rare tamarind-flavored fish sauce unique to the dish.

According to Chau, the dish was originally from Cambodia, where the broth was made from mam bo hoc - Cambodian fermented fish sauce.

Known as bun mam in Vietnam, the type of fish and fish sauce used varies by region. Spirit fish, gourami fish, or naked catfish are all common in the Mekong Delta, particularly in the commercial hub of Can Tho as well as other areas of Tra Vinh, Soc Trang, Bac Lieu, and An Giang provinces nearby Cambodia.

Dipping each ingredient into specialty tamarind fish sauce with chillies brings out the full flavor of the bun mam experience. Photo by Khanh Thien

Dipping each ingredient into specialty tamarind fish sauce with chillies brings out the full flavor of the bun mam experience. Photo by Khanh Thien

Mekong River Delta bun mam ingredients are simple and easy to find. The dish is not hard to cook per se, but it is necessary to know how to use the proper ratios of each item.

Chau says people from the Mekong Delta see the broth as the soul of the dish. Using a small pot, the cook prepares the broth by boiling different fermented fishes in water over medium heat, then simmering it until the meat is tender enough to be slurped up with the noodle soup.

Cooking oil, minced shallot, and garlic are added to a big saucepan and stir-fried until aromatic. Ngai bun, a type of ginger, and minced lemongrass are then added and stir-fried. Then, the cook will pour all of the cooked fish into a big pot after using a sieve to remove the bones. To give the broth a rich and sweet flavor, Mekong Delta River residents also add coconut water.

While the broth is boiling, the cook uses it to blanch squid and shrimp, which are then placed on a side plate to be used later. Lastly, sliced eggplants are added to the broth to give it a final bit of rich flavor.

The hot broth is then poured into a bowl over vermicelli (bun) noodles, roasted pork, shrimp, squid, and fish cake. A bowl of bun mam is always eaten with a side plate of vegetables including split water spinach, bean sprouts, stems of water lilies and yellow burrhead. Additionally, a small cup of sweet and sour tamarind sauce dipping is necessary to enhance the dish's flavor. Items from the coup are individually dipped in the sauce while eating the soup and noodles.

A steaming bowl fermented fish noodle soup with fresh seafood and a plate of vegetables is also served with lime slices, the juice of which can be added to sharpen the broth. Customers can choose to eat the vegetables raw or they can ask the cook to blanch them.

Chau’s Nguyen Thien Thuat restaurant is open from 7:30 in the morning until 21:30 at night. They sell an average of more than 50 kilograms of vermicelli noodles every day. A regular bowl costs VND65,000 (US$2.75), while a special bowl with extra ingredients costs VND75,000 ($3.18).

Despite being easy to find, parking is limited due to how busy the place gets. If diners prefer not to eat in, they can also order the food for takeout or order via a food delivery app.

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