Purists and patriots look away now. There are fewer soups blander than pho. Without the addition of kumquat, chilli sauce, nuoc mam, vinegar or heaps of MSG, Vietnam’s national dish just doesn’t tickle my taste buds any more.
However, the cooler months of spring are the ideal time to enjoy a steaming hot bowl of nutritious noodle soup. Enter bun thai hai san, saviour of the noodle soup concept, and surely one of the greatest fusion dishes found in the capital.
Fusion at its Best
The name of this dish translates into English as Thai noodle soup with seafood. Combining legendary Vietnamese street food aptitude with famous aromatic Thai flavours, this dish has everything.
One of the best places to sample it is at Long Thuy Hai San (24 Ngu Xa, Ba Dinh, Hanoi). Starting life offering nothing but bun thai hai san, the eatery now offers a variety of dishes including hotpot and pho cuon. However, the majority of customers still only come for their speciality dish, meaning the quality is consistent and the service is swift.
Owner Pham Thi Than opened the place three years ago, and it’s been packed for lunch and dinner every day since then.
“The idea came from trying to make Thai hotpot match Vietnamese tastes,” explains Than. “Thai flavours are usually more complicated and spicy than Vietnamese flavours, so we had to adjust the soup to reflect that.”
The popular bowls of soup are just VND35,000, and service is non-stop during lunch hours.
“Thai hotpot is so popular here,” says Than, “but the portion is too big. That’s why people love our soup so much. It’s a similar flavour but in a manageable portion.”
The broth which forms the base upon which this amazing soup is made attacks the mouth on multiple levels. Without adding any additional condiments, it is in equal parts sweet, sour and spicy.
The bun noodles are elevated beyond compulsory carbohydrates, as they absorb the rich, red broth and become a taste sensation on their own.
Fibre and vitamins are delivered courtesy of a generous mound of leafy green vegetables, cooked only in the heat of the broth when served. The more al dente leaf stems provide a welcome crunch when paired with a spoonful of soft rice noodles.
Arranged on top of the dish like colourful feudal regiments are various sources of fishy protein. Thick, pink prawns sit alongside thin slices of deep fried tilapia fish. Tender rings of squid bob about on the surface, flanked by heaps of crispy fried tofu. Finally, sitting across the top of the dish demanding attention are several plump mantis shrimp.
Even the side dish of this soup towers above all its peers. Crispy pieces of quay, served unceremoniously in an old plastic basket, seem to have been specifically designed with this soup in mind.
After a few brief moments of being submerged in the broth, the batter-based quay take on the flavoursome liquid like a delicious, greedy sponge.
Fusion cuisine can sometimes be a bit hit-and-miss, but magical things can happen when a country famous for its street food has a go at making a dish using flavours from a country famous for its complex, aromatic components.
Try it at Long Thuy Hai San, 24 Ngu Xa, Ba Dinh, Hanoi. Open from 8.30am to 10.30pm