A Non-Pork Pork Soup – 54 of 365

Pork Free Bun Bo Hue

My friend Kevin has opened the doors to a side of Saigon’s cuisine relatively untouched by us western folk.   His website gohalalplanet.com assists mainly Indonesian and Malaysian visitors to Vietnam who seek out halal cuisine.  For a second time in so many weeks I hopped on the back of his motorbike and off we went into the swirling traffic to a soup stand favored by our Malay friends.   Getting off the trail and exploring virgin territory is the goal of this culinary journey and how much different than the standard soup joints can a place called Pho Muslim get?

So what’s the draw to a restaurant tucked deep in a District 1 neighborhood at Alley 505, TK 25/18 Tran Hung Dao?  Four words…halal bun bo hue.  Trying the non-pork version of an otherwise pork based soup had my imagination intrigued.  You see, pig parts are an integral part of the recipe with a hoof flavoring the broth and sausage and chunks of congealed pig’s blood floating around in the annatto oil colored liquid.   The chance for deep immersion into an unknown culture to sample a bovine based substitute is definitely one of those memorable underground experiences.  I got to thinking while some backpacker is eating Pho at a chain restaurant, here’s Kevin taking me to a place well beyond the Lonely Planet guidebook’s reach.

Maneuvering a motorbike through rush hour Saigon truly is a butt clenching rite of passage for anyone living city oon steroids.   After ten minutes weaving down a manic main boulevard, a left turn directly into oncoming traffic swirling around us and then two narrow alleys later, Saigon spit our motorbike back out in front of a narrow storefront.  Picture a quiet street just wider than a car lined with narrow apartment houses.  Sprinkling in a few metal tables on either side of the asphalt lets the place ooze some authentic street food cred without the owners even trying.  And props to this joint for having adult size furniture.   Food slides down the hatch so much better when six foot tall people aren’t contorted into some funky yoga position atop squat stools.

Let me preface this by saying the soup was good.  As good as it tasted, calling this lightly spiced liquid bun bo hue is quite the artistic licensing though.   As I sampled the beef floating on top of the noodles, Kevin asked if I could detect pork.  I told him though I couldn’t taste much of anything, pork really didn’t seem to a part of it.  Indeed, many restaurants advertising as halal really aren’t and in Vietnam a healthy dose of skepticism really is needed when evaluating a claim.

I liken this to how my mom had me convinced as a toddler that cottage cheese was ice cream until I tasted the real deal at a birthday party.  Someone eating this bun bo hue will think it’s the one and only absent ever tasting the original.  So what does this all this mean for us deep in the belly of Saigon?  Simple.  Pork based bun bo hue is a thick, deeply hued rich broth while the pig free variety runs more clear with much less depth and flavor.   It’s like expecting decaf coffee to give us a jolt.   Let’s just call a spade a spade and name this soup something else.   But I do get it in theory.   We want what we can’t have and look for close enough substitutes to scratch the itch.

I always figured Saigon was the same ole same ole when it comes to soup varieties.  The uniquely Vietnamese phrase “same same but different” fits pig free bun bo hue to a t.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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