Plumes of stream erupt in the dining room as waiters hurriedly scuttle oversized bowls from the kitchen to waiting eaters. Each one large enough for a small child to bathe in, filled to the brim with boiling hot broth and vermicelli noodles, each portion is like a self-contained bottomless buffet. No appetite can rise to the challenge, despite the compulsively slurpable soup, explosive with fresh chilies, redolent with bright lemongrass and fresh cilantro. You’d think this wildly popular order was something highly recognizable like pho, but you’d be wrong. Bún riêu, Vietnamese crab noodle soup, is the worst kept secret that the Western world is just catching onto.
Complicated to prepare, most recipes lay claim to over two dozen components for the soup base, let alone the additional garnishes that finish each bubbling cauldron. Given that difficulty and the expense of such luxurious ingredients, Bún riêu would typically be reserved for special occasions, but that distinction has faded with increased prosperity and accessibility. Still, if you’re hoping for a meatless facsimile when dining out, you’d be more likely to get struck by lighting on the way out to the restaurant. Few chefs see vegetarian alternatives for the distinctive texture and flavor of fresh crab… But they’ve clearly never experienced fresh yuba.
Since dreaming up this sweet-and-sour brew, I’ve come to realize how much more potential there is to play with substituting jackfruit, simmered until meltingly tender, should Hikiage Yuba remain out of reach. Standard tofu puffs, found in most Asian markets, can stand in for the more highly seasoned nuggets as well. Worst comes to worst, should all grocery stores fall short, you could simply saute some standard firm tofu until crisp on all sides and toss it into the broth. The only mistake here would be thinking that pho is the only spicy noodle soup to savor, without getting a taste of this hot rival.
Bún Riêu Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Crab Soup)
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
2 Medium Shallots, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3.5 Ounces Fresh Oyster Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
1 (14-Ounce)Can Diced Tomatoes
1/4 Cup Pineapple Juice
2 Tablespoons Vegan Fish Sauce
1 Tablespoon Light Soy Sauce
1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
4 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Stock
8 Ounces Thin Rice Noodles, Cooked, Drained, and Rinsed with Cold Water
8 Ounces Hodo Hikiage Yuba
8 Ounces Hodo Soy Five-Spice Tofu Nuggets
1/4 Cup Crispy Fried Onions
1/2 Cup Fresh Mint and/or Basil
3 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 1/2 Cups Fresh Bean Sprouts
Set a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove and begin by melting the coconut oil. Once shimmering, add the shallots, garlic, and mushrooms, sauteing until aromatic and tender. When the vegetables begin to just barely take on color, introduce the tomatoes and pineapple juice, scraping the bottom of the pan to make sure nothing sticks. Simmer for about 10 minutes before adding in the vegan fish sauce, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, and vegetable stock. Cover and simmer for another 20 – 30 minutes for the flavors to mingle and meld. The soup base can be made up to 4 days in advance, when properly cooled and kept in an airtight container in the fridge.
To serve, simply divide the noodles, yuba, and tofu nuggets equally between 4 – 6 bowls, depending on how hungry you and your guests are. Top with a generous portion of broth, and pass around the crispy onions, mint and/or basil, scallions, and bean sprouts at the table, allowing each person to garnish their bowlful as desired. Slurp it up immediately, while steaming hot!
Makes 4 – 6 Servings