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Sep 20, 2012 05:07 PM

Bun Mam - Vietnam's complex, deliciously stinky fermented fish noodle soup

A Vietnamese classmate of mine told me about Bun Mam, a rarely-found noodle soup whose heady broth is made of pickled/fermented anchovy. This dish is RARE - only one place in Boston servs it, at Hien Vuong - a needle of a restaurant in a haystack of Vietnamese restaurants that makes up Fields Corner, Dorchester.
This hole-in-the-wall, cash-only spot was empty when I tried it around 4:30p today. The two older ladies operating it expressed disbelief when I ordered the stuff - pronounced something like "boon mahm", and asked me if I really wanted it. BRING IT ON!
Out came a huge bowl of murky opaque broth filed with thin vermicelli noodles, coarse chunks of skin-on salmon steak, shrimp, and squid. A side of the standard Pho embellishments, e.g., sprouts, basil leaves, etc., was presented.
Best ways to describe it: Rich, smelly, salty, heady, tangy, sweet & sour, spicy and pungent. Umami-city. I liked it. It has that underlying fishy funk of Prahok, the tanginess of Tom Young Goong, the complexity of a rich Pho, and some spicy chili oil drops skated around the surface.
I am happy to have found something so seemingly rare in our own back yard in Dorchester. I guess it's even hard to find Bun Mam in the Bay Area. Go figure. I guess I could see some people finding it objectionable - I seem to be a pickled fish person.
The other dish in the picture is "Fried starch", which was exactly what I thought the tiny thumbnail photo in the menu appeared to be deep fried squares of taro cake (just like the kind you get at dim sum), combined with a cup of scrambled eggs and a dipper bowl of brown fish sauce with chili pepper seeds.
Anyway, go and try this soup, especially since the weather will be cold and nast in not too long.

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  1. You do like your funky fish. That fish paste at Thai North was even a bit much for me...

    1. Just ate a bowl of this for lunch today, wasn't as unpleasant as I expected. I can only taste a hint of fishiniess. I liked it! My roommate who came with me to Hien Vuong couldn't stand the fishiness however. It's to be expected since fish sauce isn't part of his culture.

      1. Fabulous heads up; can't wait to go try it! Was the fish paste at Thai North the one made from anchovy intestines?

        4 Replies
        1. re: galleygirl

          Not sure. It was very fishy, though, even more so than the Bun Mam.

          1. re: Prav

            the cambodan/khmer places in Lowell and Providence are big into fermented fish dishes of all sorts. and some of the most "sour" soups youll ever try - nice find

            1. re: ix9

              Can you suggest a place in Lowell that does this particularly well?

            2. re: Prav

              Which dish at Thai North are you referring to? Is it the khanom jeen nam yaa (which I find fairly mild) or something else?