When Thuy Linh Do was a kid growing up in Hanoi, there was one time of the year that felt bountiful, Tết. Also known as Lunar New Year, and Feast of the First Morning of the First Day, it’s the biggest celebration in the Vietnamese calendar and for the Sydney chef behind Lynn’s Kitchen, it’s also the biggest feast of the year.
Before Giao Thừa (New Year’s Eve), Do’s family would create an altar to honour their ancestors. Around the altar, there would be a banquet – fruit, bánh chưng (a glutinous rice cake stuffed with mung bean and pork), a boiled rooster and other symbolic foods.
The altar is an invitation for the spirits of the ancestors to join the family. Chickens have a lot of symbolic meaning in Vietnamese culture and the presence of a boiled rooster is a particularly good offering to ancestral spirits.
That altar banquet would also be part of the celebration on Tân Niên (New Year’s Day). Do’s father’s family, usually 20-30 people, would congregate at one of the family homes and would spend the morning preparing a feast. Everyone would have a different role. Do’s aunty, being the most respected flavour-maker in the neighbourhood, would take on the most responsibility. “All of my eight aunts and uncles are great cooks, and all were taught to cook by my grandpa. He is very strict. He wouldn’t allow any mistakes whilst cooking the meals. Therefore, each and every meal was prepared meticulously. After cooking, the dishes must be organised nicely, and then everyone goes to the dining table together. The children have to wait for grandparents and parents to start first, and only then can they start eating their meals,” Do says.
Every year the feast would be different but there’d usually be some kind of bánh chưng, dưa hành (pickled onions), chả lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage) and xôi gấc (red sticky rice). The altar rooster would always be incorporated in the meal.
But this story is not about that feast, it’s about what came afterwards. The next day there would inevitably be leftovers and every year someone would be tasked with turning them into bún thang – a chicken noodle soup topped with whatever else is around, all sliced into incredibly thin strips and arranged on top of the soup like a wheel of flower petals.
"Next day" bún thang has been a dish in the family for generations Do says. “I’m not quite sure when it was first introduced. I only hear from my grandpa that during the war, everyone was poor, there wasn’t enough food to eat. Only at Tết festival that people had plenty of food at home. Every household had boiled chicken, bánh chưng and chả lụa. After Tết, they didn’t want to waste the food, so they invented bun thang to use up all of the leftovers. People jokingly called it ‘the dish of the poor’. But because they can only have it after Tết, everyone looked forward to it.”
Hanoi life has since changed and many people can afford to eat bún thang everyday but the tradition of eating the day after Tết remains. “I liked it from the first time I ate it. I saw everyone cook together and my aunt was the main cook. I was so curious, wondering 'how come there’s such a complicated dish?' Everything has to be sliced in super thin and long strips. I had never tried anything like that, so I stood there observing from beginning to end. The following week, I missed it so much that I came home and made it myself. Whilst I had the clumsiness of a 12-year-old girl, I was so proud to cook the dish for the first time. My parents really enjoyed the meal I cooked that day.”
"People jokingly called it ‘the dish of the poor’. But because they can only have it after Tết, everyone looked forward to it.”
When Do came to Australia in 2016, bún thang is what she used to make when she missed home. Her partner Vu Le, who grew up south of Ho Chi Minh City, had never even heard of it. “And now my children are very fond of bún thang as well, and I will definitely teach them how to cook it,” says Do. Now that Do is without a restaurant (she's permanently closed Lynn’s Kitchen due to the challenges of trading during the pandemic), Sydney’s northern Vietnamese community wants to know what they can get from her. Bún thang might just be the answer.
Do’s bún thang
- ½ rooster (Do prefers rooster to chicken for its firmer meat, but if you’re using chicken, slightly reduce the cooking for when the chicken is in the pot with the stock ingredients)
- 50 g dried shiitake mushrooms
- 4 litres water
- 75 g chicken stock powder
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 kg chicken bones
- 500 g white radish
- 2 onions
- 100 g dried shrimp
- 500 g dried vermicelli noodles, thin or medium thickness
- 500 g white radish
- 2 eggs
- 1 tbsp salt
- 100 g pickled radish
- 200 g chả lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage, Do recommends Việt Hương brand)
- Spring onions
- Vietnamese mint
- Lime wedges (optional)
- Chilli, roughly chopped (optional)
- Mắm tôm bắc or Vietnamese shrimp paste (optional)
1.To make the broth, place the chicken in a pot and cover it in water. Bring to a boil. Boil for 5-7 minutes, lower the temperature, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken and discard the water.
2. Wash dried shiitake mushrooms, then soak them in warm water until they soften. Remove the mushrooms from the mushroom water and set the liquid aside for later. Remove the mushroom roots and cut them into quarters.
3. Put 4 litres of water into the pot, add in chicken stock powder, sugar and fish sauce. Bring to the boil, add the chicken to the pot and bring to the boil again. If any foam comes to the surface, skim the scum with a ladle as soon as it appears to keep the broth clear. Once boiling, reduce the heat and cook for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat. Close the lid for 10 minutes, then take the chicken out and rinse it under cold water to retain the texture of the skin. Once the chicken is cool, debone it.
4. Put chicken bones, mushroom water, radish, onions and dried shrimp into the broth. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the temperature and let it simmer for about 1 hour. Skim any foam that appears.
5. In a new pot, bring 5 litres of water to the boil. Place the noodles into the pot. Boil them for 3-5 minutes or until soft. Drain, rinse under cold water and let the noodles dry.
6. In a mixing bowl, mix 2 eggs with the salt and whisk well. In batches (like pancakes), pour the batter into a wide pan and fry it to create a thin sheet. Once cooked but still soft, remove the cooked egg mixture from the pan. Repeat with the rest of the egg mixture. Once the egg sheets are cool, slice them into thin, long strips.
7. Stir-fry the shiitake mushrooms in a neutral-flavoured oil (like vegetable oil) with a pinch of salt. Once cool, thinly slice and set aside.
8. Slice the pickled radish into thin strips and set aside. Repeat this step for the pork loaf and chicken meat.
9. Finely chop spring onions and Vietnamese mint and set aside.
10. To assemble the bún thang, divide the noodles into four bowls. Pour broth into each bowl until there’s just enough soup to cover the noodles. Arrange the strips of egg, mushroom and other topping ingredients in segments on top, like a colour wheel, or in another pretty pattern of your choice. If serving, add lime, fresh chilli and mắm tôm bắc.
Cooking [this] took us back to Saigon, to my grandparents village, to sitting down and eating with my family and extended family.