Mention bun dau mam tom and this dish will elicit a strong response. Diners — Vietnamese and expats — either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground. It’s not so much the bun (rice vermicelli noodles) or the dau (deep-fried tofu) or the rau thom (herbs) but the mam tom which people either recoil from or regale.
Mam tom is a dipping sauce of fermented shrimp paste — thick and purplish-grey in colour — and it has an ultra-strong, fishy flavour that puts the humble anchovy to shame. It’s so strong that those with well-developed umami (savoury) taste receptors dip their tofu, herbs and rice noodles into the mam tom with glee. Made from moi (tiny shrimp) and salt, the fermentation process takes six months.
Haling from the province of Thanh Hoa — around 150 kilometres south of Hanoi — bun dau mam tom was traditionally a lunch dish served to the working poor because of its simple, cheap ingredients. It’s still a lunch dish, and even now it can be as cheap as VND20,000, including tra da (iced tea). Hanoi has now claimed it as its own, and it is considered one of the capital’s signature dishes.
A Chance Find
I first discovered bun dau mam tom on a street food tour around the Old Quarter during my first week in Hanoi, except this dish wasn’t part of the tour. Walking past a vendor cooking on a tiny stove on the footpath, I was fascinated by the perfectly sliced, white vermicelli noodles, the basket of salad greens and the golden squares of fried tofu. I’m always up for trying new vegetarian dishes and my curiosity got the better of me.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Bun dau mam tom. Do you want to try it?”
I was handed a plate of steaming hot, fried tofu, cold noodles and greens — and a small dish of purple-greyish sauce, topped with a thin layer of oil which I found out later was oil used to fry the tofu. I did as I was instructed and squeezed lime into the sauce, added chilli and stirred it with my chopsticks until it foamed. I tentatively dipped my tofu into the sauce and popped into my mouth. I was hit with a flavour so strong and salty that I nearly fell off my stool. I didn’t know if I liked it or not.
I tried it with the noodles, then the herbs. Then again with tofu. The more I had, the more I liked it. I was sold. I was officially a fan of mam tom.
Although opinions vary as to the best place to eat bun dau mam tom, I favour a vendor off Alley 19, To Ngoc Van, Tay Ho, still, it is as available in Hanoi as pho or lau or bun cha. The large yellow and red placard points diners in the right direction — towards the end of a small alley — where, under clear plastic roofing, they will find six blue plastic tables with accompanying tiny plastic stools, and a small outdoor stove where the magic happens.
Ordering bun dau mam tom with such glee, I have become something of a novelty, particularly with the customers — mostly young office workers — who are equally surprised at my order. I’m vegetarian(ish) so choose the khong thit (no meat) option, but meat lovers could have theirs served with fried spring rolls or meat. Indeed, I’ve been told that mam tom is delicious with cho (dog) — not something I’d be keen to try even if I were a meat eater. Those who aren’t keen on mam tom can have their bun dau with nuoc mam (fish sauce). But why would you?
Photos by Sasha Arefieva