Bún Riêu @ Bún Mam Sóc Trang, Oakland

Bún Riêu @ Bún Mam Sóc Trang, Oakland. Crab meatballs, pork blood, fish tofu and rice noodles.

Bún Riêu @ Bún Mam Sóc Trang, Oakland. Crab meatballs, pork blood, fish tofu and plenty of rice noodles. One step beyond pho.

Hey there. I’ve been absent from these virtual pages quite for a long time, and I’ve missed writing about food. Well, I’m back. If you’ve been wondering, there are several reasons for my lack of updates lately: (1) I’ve changed jobs during the last two months. I’m a pastry chef now, adjusting to the new schedule and routine; (2) I’ve been preparing to teach a class in culinary history this summer. Reading books and composing course materials have monopolized most of my creative energy; and lastly, (3) I’ve been posting most of my updates on Facebook via Instagram. It’s like social media shorthand. If you don’t follow me already, please check me out.

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As a chef, I’m always craving new and different foods, and I’ve really been looking to challenge my palate lately. I decided to drive down to East Oakland today to revisit Bún Mam Sóc Trang, a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant that is perhaps best known for its namesake dish, which is excellent (and for the record, eminently approachable by Western tastes). But since I wanted to broaden my horizons with new flavors, I had to forego my usual choice. Instead, I ordered a large bowl of bún riêu, an exotic soup that was bound to challenge my Western tastes on several fronts.

Where to begin? I suppose the congealed pork blood is probably the most potentially alarming garnish in bún riêu, but I also would argue that it’s also the most benign tasting (aside from the noodles and the vegetables, of course). Ultimately, the pork blood tastes vaguely of pork, yet it doesn’t feature any of the strong flavors associated with offal, despite its liver-like hue. It’s akin to blood sausage, and I’m totally fine with it. I think most Westerners could deal with it if they didn’t know its origins.

Among the other bún riêu accoutrements, I actually found the fish tofu and the crab meatballs to be a bit more challenging, though not off-putting. Contrary to its name, fish tofu contains no tofu, and is, in fact, minced white fish that is bound with soy proteins into a tofu-like form. These little square cakes feature the springiness of firm tofu, with a fishiness that is markedly stronger than, say, the pink-and-white narutomaki fish cakes that appear in some bowls of ramen.

Of course, the featured ingredient in bún riêu is the crab meatball, which is bound with ground shrimp, ground pork and eggs. This mixture is also seasoned with crab paste, which imparts a subtle but definite fermented funk to the dish. Bún riêu is not cioppino-meets-albondigas, as my Western mind had originally imagined. The crab meatballs crumble easily under the prodding of a chopstick, the best versions being somewhat fluffy, sort of like dumplings (or perhaps a sturdy consommé raft, which is actually what I thought of at one point).

The broth of bún riêu is a basic chicken stock with addition of some fresh tomato slices, which colors the soup with its ruddy tinge. No big deal there. The rice noodles are super-tender and somewhat fat, and they’re plentiful, to boot. As with the more familiar pho, bún riêu is served with a plate of aromatic garnishes that allows the diner to tweak the broth is various ways: basil, mint, lime, chili, as well as banana flower and shredded cabbage.

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