Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (bún riêu cua)

In this comforting noodle soup, crabmeat, pork, and eggs form what looks like a puff of cloud that hangs so low it touches the surface of the water—a deeply savory cloud, that is, especially when it teams up with fresh tomatoes which bring even more flavor to the party. The funk of the fine shrimp paste, a Vietnamese ingredient worth getting acquainted with, that lurks politely in the background ties it all together.

The traditional way of preparing bún riêu cua is quite involved—we’re talking smashing whole blue crabs into pieces to make stock—but our streamlined version here yields a result that’s just as flavorful with half the amount of time. Serve this light and refreshingly tart soup with fresh sides such as perilla leaves, cilantro, and lettuce.

Makes 4 servings

  • 12 ounces dried Vietnamese rice vermicelli, cooked according to package instructions, rinsed under hot tap water, drained well
  • 1/4 cup annatto seeds
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 quarts chicken broth 
  • 2 medium Roma (plum) tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
  • 8 ounces fried firm tofu, cut into wedges
  • 1 can (5 ounces) of Vietnamese minced crab in spices
  • 2 teaspoons Vietnamese fine shrimp paste
  • 6 ounces fresh claw or lump crabmeat
  • 6 ounces fatty ground pork
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Vietnamese or Thai brand of tamarind paste 
  • Fish sauce, to taste
  • 2 green onions, trimmed and sliced ⅛ inch
  • Green or butter lettuce
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges
  • Perilla leaves, optional
  • Mint leaves, optional

Combine the annatto seeds and the oil in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring often. When the oil sizzles, lower the heat to medium-low and continue to stir until it turns red. Remove from heat, strain, discard the seeds, and set the oil aside.

Combine the chicken broth, tomatoes, and tofu in a 4-quart saucepan; bring to a boil, covered, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Meanwhile, blend the minced crab in spices, fine shrimp paste, crabmeat, pork, eggs, and pepper in a food processor into a smooth paste. Scoop up 1/4 of the crab mixture with a ladle and gently drop it into the simmering broth. The mixture will sink initially only to rise to the surface when it’s cooked. Do the same with the remaining crab mixture, taking care not to stir the broth. Add the tamarind and taste for seasoning and add more fish sauce to taste, aiming for salty and sour. Stir in the annatto oil. Divide the noodles among large soup bowls, cover the noodles in each bowl with a generous amount of the soup, and top with the green onions. Serve immediately with the side vegetables and limes. 

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