Saturday, August 4, 2018

Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (Bun Rieu)

I went to the dock with scientist/researcher, Dr. Bradt and showed her how my modified crab trap works. Luckily it functioned smoothly and I managed to pull up 42 crabs in less than an hour, ranging from 3/4 to 2 1/2 inches. The majority of the crabs were 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches. I came home and made this fairly large pot of Vietnamese crab noodle soup known in Vietnamese as bún riêu. This noodle soup is popular and is eaten all over Vietnam. In Vietnam the type of crab used for this special soup is the fresh water crab found in the rice paddies. They are similar in size to the green crabs found here in the Northeast United States. 

The stock or broth (riêu) used in this soup is made using a traditional Vietnamese method by hand crushing the crabs to a pulp. I find that adding a handful of crabs at a time in freezer bags (double bag) and using a heavy object to crush them gets the job done rapidly and helps for fast and easy cleanup later. After the crabs are crushed or pureed then add a little water to the contents, stir to lift out the crab meat and strain out the liquid and the fine meat bits. I repeat this process 3 times to get as much of the meat out as possible. Nowadays many people (in Vietnam) purchase the prepared crabs all ground up.

My mother makes her delicious bún riêu using lobster shells and rock crabs from Maine. Besides my mother and a few of her Vietnamese-American friends in Maine I know of very few others who make this noodle soup from scratch. I think most believe it is too time consuming...even I have had this misconception myself. After making this from scratch the most time consuming is the actual process of cleaning the crabs. I find that trapping and cooking them can be done quickly. 

We eat this bún riêu in a similar fashion as we eat other Vietnamese wet noodles such as the well-loved phở. A bowl is served along with a large platter of fresh herbs and vegetables and a little sauce on the side. A typical platter may consist of finely shredded banana blossom, finely shredded water spinach, bean sprouts, culantro, mint, perilla, Thai basil, Vietnamese mint or balm, lime cut in wedges, and hot chili peppers. If you do not have access to banana blossom or the water spinach then you may substitute them with finely shredded green or red cabbage. I like my bún riêu with a little fine shrimp sauce (fermented shrimp) but it is optional since not everyone likes this flavor. I think the fine shrimp sauce is a little similar to anchovies but much stronger in taste and smell. If you like anchovies then you probably can eat this sauce. When I sit down to eat my bowl of noodles with broth I add a lot of the vegetables from the plate to my bowl of noodles and broth, extra chilis (the hotter the better!), a little of the fine shrimp sauce, a drizzle of fish sauce if needed and a squeeze of lime or lemon juice, then mix it all up and slurp it down while it is piping hot!

My mission, although it may sound far fetched, is to make bún riêu using green crabs a known item in this area of New England! I hope that you will make this and encourage your family and friends to eat green crabs!

bún riêu
Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (Bún Riêu)


Minimum 40-50 adult green crabs (preferably females)
12 cups cold water
3 Tbsp annatto oil (see recipe below)
2-3 large shallots, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
2 large garlic cloves, smashed, chopped (about 1 1/2 Tbsp)
2 scallions (green parts), chopped (about 1/2 cup)
About 1/2 cup uncooked green crab roe and crab mustard
6 peeled whole Roma (plum) tomatoes, quartered length-wise, cored
Fried tofu, 6-8 oz, slices
1 bunch of scallions (green parts only), cut into 1 1/2 to 2-inch lengths
2 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp fish sauce (nước mắm)
3/4 to 1 oz rock sugar (đường phèn)
1 package of rice noodles (bún), cooked as directed on package
Fresh crab meat (optional)


Follow directions on how to make Vietnamese-Style Crab Stock, but use 12 cups of water to filter out the crushed crabs. Set the crab liquid aside in a large pot over a stove. Do not disturb (no stirring) the pot.

Heat a large pan over medium high heat, add annatto oil. Once hot add shallot, garlic and chopped scallion, saute about 1-2 minutes or until the shallot is soft. Add the roe/crab mustard and saute about a minute. Add tomatoes and tofu, saute about another minute to coat everything and remove from heat. Set aside.

Heat the pot with the crab liquid over medium high to high heat. Do not stir. Let the meat pieces float to the top undisturbed. Turn the heat down a little to avoid the liquid from boiling too hard or boiling over the pot. Skim off any white foam if interested. Once the pieces stop floating to the surface (about 5 minutes) add the sauteed contents to the pot. Stir gently once. Add the 2-inch cut scallions. Season with salt, fish sauce and sugar. Stir gently once more and turn heat to very low and serve hot.

Serve with rice noodles, platter of herbs and vegetables, fish sauce and fermented shrimp on the side.

sauteed shallot, garlic, scallion, roe/crab mustard,
tomatoes and tofu in annatto oil
cook the liquid and fine crab meat until the meat pieces float to the surface
Vietnamese crab noodle soup (bún riêu)
add cooked rice noodle to a large bowl
(there are small and large round rice noodles, purchase the smaller type)
pour the broth with tofu, tomatoes, and crab bits over it

add chilis, fermented shrimp, drizzle of fish sauce
and fresh herbs and vegetables
squeeze some lime
mix and enjoy
bún riêu without crab roe but has extra freshly picked rock crab meat on top
(made with my mother while in Maine) 

a platter with an assortment of fresh herbs/vegetables
(these are the more typical items served along with bún riêu)
may substitute green or red cabbage
for the banana blossom and water spinach

A Platter of Assortment of Fresh Herbs/Vegetables:

Finely shredded banana blossom (known as bắp chuối in Vietnamese)
Finely shredded water spinach (rau muống)
Bean sprouts (gía)
Mint (rau húng)
Thai basil (rau quế)
Green or purple perilla (also known as shiso in Japanese or rau tía tô in Vietnamese)
Culantro (rau ngò gai)
Vietnamese mint or balm (rau kinh giới)
Vietnamese coriander (rau răm)
Lime, cut in wedges (to squeeze a little into the soup if interested)
Hot chili peppers, chopped

Small Sauce Dishes:

A dollop of fine shrimp sauce (mắm ruốc or mắm tôm)
A small amount of fish sauce (nước mắm)

making annatto oil
How to Make Annatto Oil (makes 3 Tablespoons)


3 1/2 Tbsp oil
1 Tbsp annatto seeds


In a pan add annatto seeds and oil. Stir the seeds over 1-2 minutes or until the oil turns bright orange-red. Remove the pan from heat and let the seeds steep for about 10-15 minutes. Strain and discard the seeds.

Helpful Hints:

*The total weight of 40 whole crabs for this recipe was about 2.75 pounds. After cleaning them and removing and discarding the carapaces, aprons, and gills and saving the roe in a separate dish the final prepared crab came to nearly 1.5 pounds. You may use more crabs if you have any. For the 12 cups of water this is the minimal amount of crabs that I would use. The crab flavor will decrease with less crabs. 
*My cousin (in Vietnam) known to me as Chế Xìa tells me she makes bún riêu similar way as this method on this post. However, she uses a blender to crush the crab (from the rice paddies) bodies, legs and claws without damaging her equipment.
*This soup should be enough for 4 fairly large bowls.
*The rock sugar can be found in an Asian market. Do not substitute rock sugar with equal amount of granulated sugar. If you do not have any rock sugar then use about 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
*As with all of the dishes on this blog, season your food according to yours and your family taste. My general rule of thumb is to season lightly when cooking and then adjust or add extra later for that individual person. If you add too much salt to start then it is quite difficult to remove it later.
*If you like to eat coagulated blood cubes in this soup like I do then you may add them when adding the sauteed contents to the pot at the end. You may purchase the blood in an Asian market. 
*The most expensive items for this soup especially living in New Hampshire would be the herbs and vegetables such as the banana blossom and water spinach. You may substitute with finely shredded red or green cabbage and a few types of easy to find herbs such as Thai basil, mint and cilantro.
*Peel and discard the outer layers (petals) of the banana blossom until you come to the tender tight part. Cut in half, core and slice as thinly as possible and immediately place in a container with cold water and juice from a lime or lemon (or may use about a tablespoon of vinegar). The acid will prevent the slices from turning black once the sap oxidizes with oxygen.
*You do not have to peel or deseed your tomatoes. The skin is a great source of fibers in your diet. However, if you choose to peel them then score the non-stem end of each tomato with a small X or +. Blanch them in boiling water for about 20 minutes or until they start to split down the side. Remove and peel once it is easy and safe (less hot) to handle. Cut into quarters (and core if interested). I prefer not to cook my tomatoes too long because I want to keep its shape in my soup.
*You can purchase the firm tofu, cut to bite size and fry in oil until golden or you can purchase them already fried in an Asian market. Add more tofu if you are interested. 
*The aquatic water spinach (rau muống) tastes nothing like the Western spinach. The flavor is very mild and it is eaten all over Southeast Asia. The Asian markets in the United States carry this vegetable but it is expensive especially in New England. For the bún riêu we use only the stalks. I use a peeler to finely shred then soak them in ice cold water to create beautiful curls. In Vietnam people generally use a vegetable peeler to create strands from these stalks. You may purchase a Water Spinach Splitter (from Amazon or an Asian market) but I find this tool to be a waste of money (I own one!). This tool has sharp blades arranged like wheel spokes intended to split the stalks. However, the stalks are too thick and I prefer using a vegetable peeler to do the same or better job.
*To cook the dried rice noodles: Place the noodles in boiling water and cook until soft. Test a strand for doneness by pinching it with your finger or eating one. Watch the pot while you boil the noodles so the liquid does not boil over the pot. Drain and run cold water over them to remove some of the starch and prevent the noodles from becoming clumpy.

thinly sliced banana blossom in cold water and lime juice
blanched tomatoes making them easy to peel
peeled, quartered, and cored tomatoes
shredded water spinach
shredded cabbage using a peeler
(this peeler was purchased in Tokyo, Japan)
you may use a spoon to remove and discard some of the liquid
from the roe and crab mustard before using
OR rinse the roe and crab mustard in cold water and strain out the water
(these last steps are not necessary)

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