a bowl of bun thang

Bun Thang: Stacked soup with a secret ingredient

Say hello to this tasty Hanoi treat. Those in the know say that Bun Thang is the quintessential Hanoi dish to try. It’s complex, flavorful, and surprising. In fact, a truly authentic version has 20 ingredients, from the mundane to the truly extraordinary. It’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

Bun thang is a popular dish for breakfast in Vietnam.

The basics

At its most basic, this soup has is vermicelli, egg, chicken, pork, herbs, and a clear broth. It sounds simple enough, right? Hardly anything to travel all the way to Hanoi to try, even if we add in the vegetables and herbs, including dried radish, chili, Vietnamese coriander leaves, mushrooms, scallions, garlic and more. After all, the beauty of this soup isn’t just the basics, it’s the way that the particular ingredients are chosen and incorporated.

The right chicken

For a truly authentic bun thang, you have to have the right kind of chicken. In this case, it’s not the species of chicken, but the age of the chicken that matters. The best chicken required for an authentic bun thang is a hen who has been laying eggs for only about a week. That means that they are considered old enough, but aren’t old enough to be tough. We don’t get that specific in the West. The closest thing we can get is free-range chicken.

The right form

In order to meet the most exacting standards, the toppings must be cut with precision. From the Vietnamese pork sausage to the scallions, everything should be julienned into precisely the same matchstick-sized pieces.

Even the eggs, which are scrambled and fried into a thin, crepe-like layer, are then rolled and cut into the same thickness. The exactitude of the toppings adds to the presentation as well as the flavor, making your dinner into an aesthetic art form to be admired.

The right order

In many dishes order matters, but in bun thang, the order of the ingredients is as precise as how they are chopped. Once again, the most authentic bun thang that you would find in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, is layered in a particular order.

Some find it strange that it isn’t just added to the other toppings, but tradition holds that the Vietnamese coriander leaves are put in the bottom of the bowl, to be covered by the noodles.

From there, the ingredients are layered:

  1. The noodles create a bed for the toppings: eggs, pork sausage, chicken, vegetables
  2. Then add the other herbs and garnishes like Thai chiles and shrimp paste (mam tom)
  3. Pour in a fragrant broth, a dash of the secret ingredient

The secret ingredient

Even some of the more unusual ingredients are at least familiar to most Westerners. We eat chicken, pork, eggs, herbs, vegetables and all of that. There’s one ingredient, however, that might take Westerners by surprise.

Although some Southeastern Asian dishes do eat the muscles of this giant water bug but the secret ingredient in bun thang isn’t the bug itself, it’s just its essence, its pheromones, ca cuong. Not surprisingly, ca cuong is very expensive. Giant water bugs or not, it still takes a lot of them to fill a bottle of essence. Fortunately, they have created a synthetic version that apparently comes close to the right flavor.

As urbanization and modernization have taken over Hanoi many of the authentic experiences have begun to disappear. It’s still possible, however, to find authentic bun thang in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, if you look hard enough. Just ask them if they use real ca cuong.

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