A couple weeks ago, we found ourself in our old neighbourhood and decided to visit the Union, a restaurant that I’ve visited a few times with friends, but never with my husband. We ordered drinks and I ordered their bún vermicelli bowl with fish and it blew me away with how fresh everything tasted. I vowed that I’d try to recreate the dish (minus the fish) at home.
This is the result and oh-m-gee, it’s fantastic, fresh and pretty dang healthy too! And yet, it’s pretty freaking epic in terms of prep. Because this is a glorified salad, there are a lot of vegetables that need prepping. I may have went a little overboard adding in purple cabbage and snow peas as they’re not traditional bún ingredients, but they needed to be used up stat. Plus, they added extra crunch which is always good and the purple cabbage provided a visual feast for the eyeballs.
There’s also plenty of other components besides the vegetables. Like the sweet-tart nuoc cham dipping sauce. The little bowl that comes alongside your dishes at Vietnamese restaurants is always my favorite part of the meal and I was surprised at how easy it was to make. If you want to keep it vegan use 2 tablespoons of light soy sauce instead of fish sauce. The traditional pickled veg is super easy as well – if you don’t have daikon, skip it or use regular radishes instead. No need to keep things strictly traditional!
For protein, I opted for tofu since I had some in the fridge. I fried it up, but I think next time, I’d marinate and bake it instead. Or I’d use some grilled chicken or pork instead. My salt & pepper tofu was delicious, but frying – even a very shallow fry – makes a lot of mess and things got a little bit smokey. I had to get Cornelius to open up all the windows on a rainy and cold night to air out the place. I’ll try a different protein or a different method in dealing with the tofu next time. And while I think you can play around with ingredients, please, please, please do not skip the fresh mint!! Even if you think you’re not a mint fan, add the mint. Just tear in a few leaves into your bowl – it makes a huge difference in flavour.
So you’ve been warned. There’s a lot of components but that just means that you’re dinner is going to be a whole lot more interesting, right?! Warm noodles, slippery fried scallions, fresh bites of mint and herbs, crunchy watery bean sprouts and salty peanuts. Serious flavour happenings! Why not share all this good stuff with a crowd? Call up some friends and chow down on a little bún vermicelli bowl. Or go nuts and pile it onto a plate like someone I know did above. It also makes for very happy leftovers – no prep!
While I’m not marking this recipe as gluten free or vegan/vegetarian, it can easily be made either of these things with a few tiny tweaks! Enjoy!
bún vermicelli bowl with tofu
I know, this looks daunting, but if you can prep a few things in advance, you’ll be fine. I promise! Here’s my routine:
The night before, make the nuoc cham and the pickling brine. Also prep your vegetables for the pickle (the carrots, daikon, and cucumber) along with some of the bowl ingredients like shredding the cabbage, prepping the lettuce, cutting the snow peas, and chopping the peanuts. The next day, make the fried scallions, prepare the rice vermicelli according to package directions (I like to heat up water in a pot and when the water is warm enough, turn off the heat, add in the noodles & put on the lid) while you prepare the tofu. If you don’t want tofu, use grilled chicken, pork, or fish instead. Then grab a bowl, layer your individual ingredients however you like & dig in!
nuoc cham (dipping sauce)
1/2 c water
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c fish sauce
1/4 c rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1-2 t chili garlic sauce
1 garlic clove, minced
In a mason jar with a tight lid, add in the water and sugar. Screw on lid tight and shake it like you mean it. A good 1 minute shake should dissolve the sugar. Add in the fish sauce, vinegar, garlic and chili sauce and stir well. Set aside. Serves 4-6.
carrot, daikon & cucumber pickle
1 c water
2 T sugar
2 T rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1 t kosher salt
1 5″ chunk of daikon radish
In a small saucepan, heat water, sugar, vinegar and salt together until dissolved. Cool (I like to to this step the night before and refrigerate the brine). Use a mandoline to cut the carrots, cucumber and daikon into thin matchsticks. Toss with brine & set aside. Serves 4-6.
1 bunch of green onions, diced
2 T canola oil
Heat a small saucepan with oil over medium heat. Add in the scallions and sautee until dark green, soft & fragrant, about 5 minutes. Lower heat to a simmer, add a splash of soy sauce (if using) and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Serves 4.
salt & pepper fried tofu
1 block extra-firm tofu, cut into cubes
1 t kosher salt
1/2 c cornstarch
2 T olive oil
Sprinkle tofu cubes with salt and let sit for 30 minutes. In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and a good grind of black pepper, and then toss to the tofu into this mixture, making sure to get even cornstarch coverage. Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat and when the oil starts to shimmer and wave across the surface of the pan, carefully add the tofu, giving each cube room to breathe. Turn with a fork so that all sides get a nice even browning. Watch heat and tofu carefully – this can burn quickly! Remove from pan and set aside. Serves 4-6.
bún vermicelli bowl ingredients
rice noodles, cooked according to pkg directions
shredded romaine lettuce
snow peas, sliced thinly along the diagonal
shredded purple cabbage
mint leaves (not optional!!)
salted peanuts, roughly chopped
Serve each individual element in its own bowl. Layer the bowl however you like and serve with the nuoc cham, a few squirts of sriracha and a wedge of lime.