Why This Recipe Works

  • Infusing the oil with annatto seeds and aromatics gives the broth its signature red color and enhances the flavor of the dish.
  • Simmering the meat and bones in the broth tenderizes the meat while deepening the broth’s flavor.  
  • The addition of pineapple, though optional, imbues the broth with a slight acidity and sweetness that complements the finished bowl.
  • Clarifying the shrimp paste before adding it to the broth gives the broth its distinct flavor without making it cloudy from the sediment of the paste.

Bun bo hue is a spicy, flavorful noodle soup from Hue, a city in the central region of Vietnam. Hue is the former capital of Vietnam, and was the home for all of the rulers, emperors, and dynasties. That is why this regional cuisine tends to have more variety, as well as dishes that are more labor-intensive, like bun bo hue. Personally, this is my favorite city to eat in when visiting my motherland, as the food leans a little more vibrant and spicy.

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Pho is the golden child of noodle soups in Vietnam. Everyone knows it and loves it―it is usually the gateway dish for foreigners to Vietnamese food. Bun bo hue, on the other hand, is that cool, dark, and mysterious cousin that everyone would actually rather hang with. Spicy, funky, and super flavorful, this beef noodle soup requires a few steps and different types of proteins, but the depth and flavor will have you overlooking pho every time you see this dish on a menu.

In my family, both of my parents cooked, but each of them had dishes that they excelled in. My dad really mastered making bun bo hue and he geeks out on all the steps that are required. This recipe is inspired by my dad’s version, but it has a few shortcuts to save time and a couple extra ingredients to make the flavor pop. 

The Keys to Great Bun Bo Hue Broth

Bun bo hue means “beef noodle soup from Hue,” but it isn’t only made with beef; it also contains a fair amount of pork. The bowl is usually garnished with fresh ham hocks, steamed pork sausage, and coagulated pork blood cake, alongside soft, succulent beef shanks. The broth is a mixture of beef, pork, and shrimp paste, which may sound like a bit much, but each protein complements the others. Beef is very savory, pork adds some sweetness, and the shrimp paste lends a subtle salty, funky note that brings it together. 

Broth-making in Vietnam requires that the bones get some special treatment. Ideally, a broth for any Vietnamese noodle soup should be clear, delicate, and flavorful. I normally soak beef and pork bones in cold water for 30 minutes before cooking to allow any blood in them to seep out, so that it doesn’t cloud the broth later while simmering. After soaking, I blanch them in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes, or until foam floats to the surface of the water, skimming off any impurities. Lastly, I rinse the bones thoroughly, rubbing off anything still clinging to them. Only then are the bones are ready to make the broth.

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The broth itself starts with infusing oil with annatto seeds. This step creates a red oil that floats to the top of the soup and enhances the flavors of the broth. Although it isn’t traditional, I like to bloom the aromatics by cooking the onion, chile flakes, and lemongrass in the annatto oil until fragrant, then I add all of the remaining broth ingredients except the shrimp-paste broth (which I prepare while the main broth is simmering).

I also add makrut lime leaves, which enhances the citrus-like flavor of the lemongrass. It is crucial to season the broth at the beginning. Since we are simmering the meats in the broth that will later garnish the final soup for serving, we want that meat to be well seasoned. A long simmer develops flavor and ensures the beef shank’s connective tissues break down throughly, for the juiciest, most succulent beef. The ham hocks in the recipe do not require a long cooking time, so be sure to pull those out once fork-tender, but not yet falling off the bone. 

Once the meat and broth is simmering away in the pot, it’s time to make the clarified shrimp-paste broth. Since a transparent broth is desirable, it is important to bring the shrimp paste and water to a boil, then let it sit on the stove off of the heat so that the sediment settles to the bottom of the pot. This usually takes 20 to 30 minutes. After it settles, scoop the clear liquid from the top and add it to the main pot. Taste the broth before adding it, then taste it afterwards to make sure you can appreciate the difference.

Now, not all shrimp pastes are the same. If you can find one that says “mam ruoc hue’’ opt for that one, as it is specifically from that region and is closest to the original. Otherwise, “mam tom” from the Lee Kum Kee brand is one I like to use.

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To Pineapple or Not to Pineapple

A lot of bloggers making bun bo hue will say that their secret ingredient is pineapple. I can verify that in Hue, I did see some stands including this fruit in their broths. My family did not add pineapple to the broth when I was growing up. So when my dad heard that my recipe called for pineapple, the traditionalist in him was not too happy about it. But then my father’s wife made it once with pineapple, and I think he is now converted. Not only does the pineapple brighten the broth with acidity and subtle sweetness, but it also contains enzymes that help tenderize the meat (which is why in general you don’t want to marinate meats for too long with pineapple juice, lest they become mushy).

Assembling a Bowl

Unlike most bun dishes in Vietnam, bun bo hue calls for a thicker rice noodle, about the size of spaghetti, which is necessary for this dish to stand up to the more assertive broth. Rice noodles soak up flavor, and the thicker they are, they more they can soak up! This particular noodle is not very popular in Vietnam and is only used for this dish, though I have seen that it is a very popular noodle in the Yunnan region of China. 

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The garnishes or veggies that accompany bun bo hue vary from place to place, but you’ll usually see mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, chile, lime, and shredded fresh banana blossoms. Personally, I like it with shredded cabbage instead of the banana blossoms, as it’s crunchier and sweet, and also a lot easier to find.  

Besides the beef shank and ham hocks, the other meats that are usually in this bowl are coagulated pork blood cake and cha hue (a steamed sausage in the Hue style, made with peppercorns). I can usually find these two ingredients at my local Asian grocery store. I think that the cha hue is a must-have, and the pork blood cake is best store-bought. (I’ve tried to make it a few times and it never turns out as silky as store-bought). 

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This dish is a labor of love fit for a king, but I’m confident that if you make it, you’ll see it’s also fit to challenge pho for the throne as the greatest of all Vietnamese noodle soups.

Bún Bò Huê (Vietnamese Spicy Beef Noodle Soup)

This spicy, funky, and meaty noodle soup from the city of Hue in the central region of Vietnam is a labor of love to make, but is well worth the effort.

  • For the Broth:
  • 2 pounds (905g) boneless beef shanks 
  • 2 pounds (905g) meaty beef bones, such as neck bones or oxtails
  • 1 1/2 pounds (680g) fresh (un-smoked) ham hocks, cut into 1- to 2-inch-thick rounds
  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) neutral oil, such as vegetable, canola, or grapeseed
  • 1 teaspoon annatto seeds
  • 1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces; 225g), halved through root end
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, cut into roughly 5-inch lengths, then halved lengthwise and lightly crushed with the blunt side of a knife
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 4 makrut lime leaves
  • 1/4 cup (36g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
  • 1/4 cup (50g) sugar, plus more if desired
  • 1/3 cup (80ml) fish sauce, plus more if desired
  • 1 teaspoon MSG (optional) 
  • One-third of a peeled fresh pineapple
  • 1/4 cup (70g) shrimp paste, such as Lee Kum Kee, plus more for serving
  • For Serving:
  • One 2-pound (905g) package bun bo hue rice noodles, cooked according to package instructions, then rinsed with cold water
  • 1 pound (455g) cooked coagulated pork blood cake, sliced 1/2 inch thick
  • 1 pound (455g) Vietnamese steamed ham (also called cha hue or cha lua), sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1 bunch scallions (about 5 to 6 scallions), white and green parts, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces; 225g), thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped
  • 1 bunch fresh mint sprigs
  • 1 fresh banana blossom, thinly sliced crosswise and held in water with a splash of white vinegar, or 1/2 head green cabbage, shredded
  • 2 pounds (905g) bean sprouts
  • 2 to 3 jalapeños, bird’s eye, or other hot green chiles, stemmed and thinly sliced 
  • 8 lime wedges
  1. For the broth: In a stockpot, add beef shanks, beef bones, and ham hocks, and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Let soak at room temperature for 30 minutes to draw out any blood. Drain, rinse, then return meat and bones to the same pot. Add fresh water to cover by 1 inch, then bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Cook for 10 minutes (there should be foam and cloudy proteins that float to the top.) Drain and rinse meat and bones well, transfer to a large bowl, and set aside.

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  2. In the same large pot, heat oil and annatto seeds over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until oil becomes bright red, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove and discard seeds. Add onion, lemongrass, and chile flakes to the annatto oil and cook, stirring often until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

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  3. Add lime leaves, salt, sugar, fish sauce, MSG (if using), and pineapple (if using), along with prepared meat and bones and 5 quarts (4.7L) water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook until ham hocks are fork-tender but not falling off the bone, about 1 hour. Transfer ham hocks to a large bowl, let cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate.

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  4. Continue to cook broth until beef shank is fork-tender, 2 to 4 hours longer. Remove beef shank, transfer to cutting board, let stand until cool enough to handle, then slice beef shank 1/4 inch thick and set aside. Strain broth, discard solids, then return broth to pot.

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  5. Meanwhile, in a small pot, combine shrimp paste with 2 cups (475ml) water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat, stir, and let sit for 30 minutes. Using a laddle or large spoon, transfer shrimp-paste liquid to the broth, being careful to leave any shrimp paste sediment behind. Season to taste with sugar and/or fish sauce. Hold broth warm over low heat until ready to serve.

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  6. For serving: Rewarm ham hocks in the broth. In each soup bowl, add 7 ounces (200g) noodles, top with 5 or 6 slices reserved beef shank, 1 ham hock, 1 slice pork blood cake, and 2 or 3 pieces steamed ham, followed by a handful each of green onions, yellow onion, and cilantro.

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  7. Return broth to a boil, then ladle enough hot broth into each bowl to cover noodles.

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  8. Serve immediately with a plate of fresh mint, banana blossom or cabbage, bean sprouts, chiles, and lime wedges alongside, as well as extra shrimp paste if desired.

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Special Equipment

Large stock pot

Make-Ahead and Storage

This is a dish that keeps getting better as it sits, but you should only cook the noodles the day you serve them, because they will become brittle once refrigerated.

All of the garnishes can be prepped up to 4 hours in advance and refrigerated in airtight containers.

The broth can be strained and refrigerated in airtight containers for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. The beef shank can be refrigerated in a container with some of the broth (so it stays juicy) for up to 5 days.

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