A steaming bowl of phở was my introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. Then, I discovered Vietnamese spring rolls with that wonderful peanut dipping sauce. But it wasn't until I tried bún bò xào that I fell totally and madly in love with Vietnamese food.
Bún bò xào is a noodle salad. At least, by Western standards that is how it is logically categorized. But in Southeast Asia, bún bò xào would be considered a light meal rather than a starter course as a salad is often defined in the West. Bún bò xào has everything that a balanced meal requires. It has meat, it has cabohydrates it has lots of vegetables and fresh herbs.
Bún bò xào is served in layers. At the bottom of the bowl are the cooked rice noodles (bún) cooled to room temperature. The noodles are topped with vegetables, both pickled and fresh. Next comes the beef (bò) that had been marinated with lemongrass then stir fried (xào). The garnishes come last. Crushed roasted peanuts, fried crisp shallots and lots of fresh herbs that may include cilantro, lemon basil, mint, perilla (shisho leaves) or all of them. A generous splash of nước mắm pha (more popularly known as nước chấm, the generic term for dipping sauce) is added, the contents of the bowl are tossed together and the bún bò xào is ready to be enjoyed.
What's so special about bún bò xào anyway? The ingredients are nothing extraordinary and there are no complex steps in the preparation that qualifies the dish as "gourmet". Bún bò xào is comforting and familiar yet nuanced enough to be mysterious at the same time. It's all about the contrasting hues and textures of the ingredients which are happily brought together by nước mắm pha without which the salad is nothing but a discordant lump of colors and shapes.
- 8 ounces (about 250 grams) beef sirloin
- 1 tablespoon nước mắm (fish sauce)
- 1 teaspoon garlic (minced)
- 1 tablespoon finely sliced lemongrass (use only the tender center of white portion of the stalks)
- 4 ounces (110 grams) thin rice noodles, prepared according to package directions then drained and cooled
- 1/3 cup julienned cucumber
- 1/3 cup pickled carrot and radish
- 1 finger chili, thinly sliced (optional)
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 2 cups fresh herbs (cilantro, lemon basil, mint, perilla or a combination of two or more)
- 1 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
- 2 tablespoons fried crisp shallots (available in Asian stores)
- 1/3 cup nước mắm pha
Cut the sirloin across the grain into slices less than a quarter of an inch thick. Cut each slice into strips about half an inch wide. Mix with the nước mắm (fish sauce), garlic and lemongrass.
Divide the noodles between two bowls. Top with the julienned cucumber, pickled carrot and radish and finger chili (if using).
Heat the peanut oil in a wok to smoking point. Stir fry the beef for about two minutes.
Divide the beef between the two bowls.
Top with fresh herbs, peanuts and fried shallots.
Serve with nước mắm pha on the side.