I love noodles—all kinds. But if I had to pick the most endearing noodle, both to my soul and to my palate, it would have to be bun, Vietnamese vermicelli-style noodles. Made from rice flour, water, and salt, these noodles are a beloved staple in my native country. My favorite way to eat them is in what I call a cool noodle salad, a traditional Vietnamese dish (also called bun) of noodles served at room temperature with cool garnishes and warm toppings.
Here in the United States, cool noodle salads translate into perfect summer suppers. The soft rice noodles sit on a bed of cool, crunchy bean sprouts, cucumbers, lettuce, and mint, and they’re topped with warm stir-fried vegetables, meat, or shrimp.
Drizzled with a lively sauce, bun becomes an intricately flavored dish of contrasting tastes, textures, and temperatures. I adore bun, not only because it exemplifies the freshness and liveliness of Vietnamese cuisine, but also because it makes a satisfying yet healthy meal—something we can all appreciate. The noodles and greens are always served in copious amounts, while the meat is served in smaller, garnish-size portions.
As kids, my sister and I loved these noodle dishes so much that we’d eat them two or three times a week. Walking home from school in Saigon, we would often stop at Chi Ba’s popular sidewalk bun stand. Her tiny makeshift restaurant included a squeaky bench that held six customers at most, and a front counter cluttered with baskets of con bun (freshly made noodle “nests”) and baskets of shredded greens and fragrant herbs. After squeezing onto the crowded bench, we’d order our usual: bun with grilled pork and beef. Then we’d grab our chopsticks and wait eagerly.
Working with a deft hand, Chi Ba quickly threw juicy slices of pork and beef onto the hot grill, which sizzled, popped, and caramelized so furiously that a fragrant haze blurred our faces and whetted our appetites even more. She assembled our bowls, starting with handfuls of bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, and herbs, and adding fresh noodles and the delicious grilled meat. We’d drizzle on some nuoc cham (a Vietnamese dipping sauce made from the fish sauce nuoc mam), toss in some chopped roasted peanuts, and turn over the noodles a few times with our chopsticks. Once again, we’d find ourselves in bun heaven.
To make bun at home, start with the right noodles; they have everything to do with the character of the finished dish. Bun noodles are softer and less dense than pasta and other wheat-based noodles, so they easily absorb the juices they’re bathed in. In the company of meats, spices, and herbs, bun noodles enhance them all, helping flavors to harmonize with one another.
Although fresh rice vermicelli is not widely available in this country, the dried noodles are easy to find at supermarkets and Asian grocery stores. Also called rice sticks, they are as thin as angel hair pasta, but more wiry, and are usually sold in one-pound clear cellophane packages. Don’t confuse rice vermicelli with mung bean vermicelli (also called bean threads), which cook up with a more toothsome texture than rice noodles. Rice vermicelli are quick to prepare, because they don’t need to be soaked, and only need four to five minutes of cooking.
Choose the freshest and crispest lettuce and herbs for the salad. Slice the greens gently, rather than chopping them, so that they don’t bruise and lose their juices. In Vietnam, we use a number of different highly fragrant herbs such as sharp, spicy Vietnamese coriander, anise-like red perilla, and another herb that’s similar to lemon balm. Here, you can find these herbs in Asian markets, and sometimes at farmers’ markets; however, mint, cilantro, basil, and Thai basil all work well. (Thai basil plants are now available in many garden centers, if you want to have a regular supply of this anise-scented herb.) In addition to the lettuce and herbs, you can also add either shredded carrot or daikon radish for color and crunch.
In Vietnam, beef is a traditional topping for bun, but I like to use pork, shrimp, and vegetables as well. My favorite toppings include a delicious caramel-marinated pork, lemongrass-scented shrimp, and a combination of stir-fried vegetables and tofu (or you could substitute chicken). With the master recipe for noodle salads, you can create different tasting bun meals just by changing the toppings, the greens, or even the herbs.
You can prepare most components in advance. Nuoc cham, a Vietnamese dipping sauce, keeps in the refrigerator for a month; with a jar handy, you can make bun anytime. Once you cook, cool, and drain the noodles, they’ll keep at room temperature for several hours or until you’re ready to serve. You can also wash and arrange your lettuce and herbs ahead of time. Keep them in the refrigerator covered with plenty of damp paper towels, and they’ll stay crisp. Just be sure to remove the greens a half hour or so before serving. They should be cool, not cold.
Now all you have to do is pick your favorite topping for bun; they’re all quick-cooking. Once you’ve tried the recipes I’ve provided, experiment with different toppings, garnishes, and herbs. As you’ll soon discover, the possibilities for creating delicious juxtapositions of flavors and textures are endless (for beverages to serve with these meals, see Drink Choices, below). Maybe you’ll adore bun as much as I do.
Drink Choices for Noodle Salads
These Asian noodle salads are exotic, refreshing, and tasty, but watch out, wine lovers: “Asian” and “salads” spell potential wine trouble. With salads, the usual culprit is vinegar in the dressing, because vinegar’s acetic acid doesn’t mate well with wine’s fruit acids. No problem on that score here, though, because the tang in the nuoc cham dressing comes from lime juice. “Asian,” on the other hand, suggests flavors that can really clash with wine. Salt (from soy and fish sauces), sweetness (from sugar), and hot spice all do damage to dry wine.
So if you want wine, look for one that either has a touch of sweetness or seems to because it’s very fruity. For summer, a chilled rosé makes a fine choice. Give your guests a chuckle with Toad Hollow’s dry “Eye of the Toad,” or try a slightly sweeter rosé such as Heitz’s Grignolino Rosé, or Zinfandel Rosé from Pendroncelli.
You could also play it a bit more offbeat with cider: the sweet-tart Hard Core from Massachusetts, Sonoma’s Rhyne Cider, or the pear, apple, and honey varieties from Ace would all work well.
But if you’d rather thame the spice, pour a frosty brew. Light, smooth beers and ales, such as Pyramid Pale Ale from Washington and Whitewater Wheat from Great Divide in Denver, do a fine job. To my taste, though, a touch more sweetness in the glass works some real magic. I love Nor’wester Honey Weizen from Oregon, Brewery Hill Honey Amber Ale from Pennsylvania, and the mellow Grant’s Apple Honey Ale from Washington.
—Rosina Tinari Wilson