This fermented fish consommé gets its intense flavour from a rich bone broth and a liquor made from boiling fermented fish. Inspired by Vietnamese bun mam, the clear broth packs a flavour punch that is sure to create some photo-worthy facial expressions.
All about bún mắm
Bun mam (bun [as in bull] mum) is one of my favourite Vietnamese noodle dishes. Its origin is in the Mekong Delta, where fermented fish preparations are a speciality. As you can imagine, it has quite a distinctive character which puts some people off. The “muddy water” look of the fermented fish broth in many versions of bún mắm probably doesn’t help.
Like ramen and phở, bun mam is considered fast food. But what these dishes also have in common is that they take a lot of preparation, starting a day ahead. This is definitely not a weeknight recipe. But that pre-planning and extra effort pay off. These dishes and this fermented fish consommé taste like a lot of love has gone into their creation.
To learn more about bún mắm, its origins and its variations, this Vietnam Coracle article Bún Mắm: the Mekong in a Bowl is a great resource. Vietnam Coracle is also the number one resource for planning motorcycle trips in Vietnam.
And for a very Mekong River version of this dish, watch this beautifully shot video by Vuong Anh. Check out her other videos as well. She captures much of what is very special about Vietnamese cuisine.
All about this recipe
This recipe draws its inspiration from bún mắm, but it is not bún mắm. For a start, it is a consommé. Gone is the muddy water soup, at least visually. What remains is the rich, complex flavours born from the combination of two primary ingredients. Firstly, a pork and chicken bone broth. Second, two types of fermented fish boiled to extract the complex, pungent flavours from these umami-packed morsels.
But where does one buy fermented fish if you don’t have easy access to the Mekong Delta? Fermented fish preparations exist in many of the world’s cuisines. To stay close to the Mekong River, we suggest substituting the Thai fermented fish sauce pla ra which will be available from Asian stores and Amazon.
A word of warning. The boiling of the fermented fish to extract their essence can produce some less than pleasant cooking smells that may not be appreciated by those you share your space with. Best put the extractor on high, and open the windows and doors.
If you haven’t made a consommé before, let alone a fermented fish consommé, it may be a little intimidating. I know I was intimidated the first time. But it is actually quite easy. An immersion blender is essential. Every kitchen should have one. This consommé did result in a bit more sediment than usual. Use some muslin to strain it out.
Notes on toppings
Whitefish: Buy a fillet of firm white fish like snakehead and poach in the broth before being transformed into a consommé. Prawns: Buy cooked prawns, or fresh ones and poach in the broth before being transformed into a consommé. Fish Cake: While you could make your own, it is also available in the freezer section in Asian groceries. Roast pork belly: You could buy at a deli or make it yourself using the method used in this kimchi consommé recipe.
Fermented fish consommé (Bún mắm thông thoáng)
- Immersion Blender
Fermented fish soup
- 400 g fermented fish (mắm cá sặc) Or 200g mắm cá sặc, 200g mắm cá linh. Or substitute with 200 ml Thai pla ra.
- 1 liter water
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 5 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 500 ml coconut water
- 2 liters pork and chicken bone broth Need to do a day ahead.
- 2 stalks lemongrass smashed a little
- 2 Japanese eggplants the long thin type
- 10 egg whites
- 100 g firm white fish fillet e.g. cod
- 4 prawns
- 100 g fish cake
- 100 g roast pork belly
- Vegetable platter bean sprouts, basil, garlic chives, sliced red chilis, and limes
- 300 g thick rice vermicelli
Fermented fish soup
- In a saucepan, add the fermented fish to one litre of water. Bring to a high simmer, and simmer for 10 minutes. You might want to turn on your extractor fan, as this step generates some odours some will find unpleasant. If you are using pla ra, just mix that into the litre of water and boil for 5 minutes.
- Cut the eggplant into bite-size pieces then soak in salted water for 15 minutes
- In a large saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic in oil until just starting to brown.
- Add 2 liters of bone broth, 500ml coconut water, the diced eggplant, and the lemongrass stalks.
- Through a fine strainer, pour in the fermented fish stock.
- Bring to a boil then reduce to a low simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes.
- Cut up the bass fillet and fish cake into bite-sized pieces. Shell and de-vein the prawns.
- Bring soup up to a medium simmer and lower the seafood into the soup using a metal basket, such as a ramen noodle strainer. Keep in the soup until the fish and prawns are cooked through. Set aside.
- Remove the soup from the heat.
- Remove the eggplant from the soup and set aside.
- Remove the lemongrass from the soup and discard.
- Add the egg whites to the soup and immediately use an immersion blender to combine well.
- Return to medium heat. As the egg whites cook they will rise to the surface along with sediment and other fine particles in the soup.
- Remove the egg white layer and strain the now clear soup to remove any remaining bits.
- Reheat before serving.
- Cook the noodles until al-dente.
- Arrange the vegetable platter.
- For each preheated bowl…
- Place some noodles in the centre of the bowl.
- Arrange around the noodles a piece or 2 of fish, a couple of prawns, a piece of fish cake, and a couple of pieces of pork.
- Spoon over about 300ml hot consommé.
- Each diner adds vegetables or herbs of their choice to the soup before enjoying it.