Pho may be the most ubiquitous Vietnamese dish on offer throughout the world, but a local business is championing another beloved dish from across the border – Bun Dau – a meal which is immediately recognised by the pungent smell of its fermented shrimp paste.
In Vietnam, Bun Dau can be found everywhere, from street vendors in Hanoi to upmarket restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2017, CNN named it one of the county’s top 40 dishes.
It’s usually eaten without utensils, as assortments of ingredients are assembled by the customer in a lettuce wrap.
In Phnom Penh, the original Bun Dau flavour has been re-created by 28-year-old Cambodian Neth Sereyroth, a former private sector employee.
Sereyroth and her sister decided to open the restaurant after they visited the original Bun Dau eatery in Siem Reap. They loved the dish so much that they wanted to bring it to the nation’s capital.
“My sister was a customer at a Bun Dau eatery in Siem Reap. From her first taste, she loved it a whole lot and decided to open a restaurant. Together we have made Bun Dau available in Phnom Penh,” Sereyroth says.
The Bun Dau eatery in Siem Reap opened about a year ago and Sereyroth opened her branch of the restaurant in July.
“The franchisor came to teach us directly how to make the sauce formula and the green tea, another speciality from Vietnam which we also serve here,” she says.
Located on Street 128 in Phnom Penh, the small eatery features a cheery interior with bright wall accents. To ensure everyone’s safety and hygiene, the staff wear masks and plastic gloves in accordance with the new normal protocols.
There’s also a VIP room for private events big enough for a small family or a group of friends.
The actual Bun Dau dish is served in a winnowing basket filled with vermicelli, assorted vegetables, and different meats or protein-based sides.
These include crispy deep-fried tofu, boiled meat, cha com (green rice pork nuggets), crispy cha gio (spring rolls), nam chua (minced pork with taro) and braised pork offal.
Cucumber slices and fish mint are served on the side to be wrapped with the other ingredients in a fresh leaf of lettuce.
But the smelly shrimp paste, served in a small bowl, is the king of all the ingredients in this dish.
Diners can adjust the taste of the sauce to their preference by adding sugar and kumquats. When they get it just right, they can use it as a dipping sauce for the Bun Dau wrap.
For those who cannot stand the smell, Sereyroth’s Bun Dau eatery offers a mild fish sauce as a substitute.
Sereyroth says: “We provide two sauces for the customers, the shrimp sauce and a sweet fish sauce. But I recommend you to try it with the shrimp sauce first. It is more popular among the crowd and it goes well with the dish.”
She says it is difficult to replicate the exact flavour of the dish because ingredients have to be imported from Vietnam to make it right.
Sereyroth imports meats, the shrimp paste, the green rice pork nuggets, the minced pork with taro and the spring roll wraps. The rest of the menu was created using local ingredients.
To get the full Bun Dau flavour and experience, she says any first-timer should eat it with their hands.
“If you want to enjoy its wholesome taste, it’s better to use hands instead of chopsticks. Everything goes on a bed of lettuce, with cucumber and herbs, together with the cha com. It all depends on your taste and then you dip it into the shrimp sauce,” she says.
The dish comes in three different sizes – a small one costs $5 and is enough for one to two people, the medium dish costs $10 and can feed up to three people while the large version is $15 and enough for three to four people.
After a mouthful of Bun Dau, a sip from the shop’s speciality tea rounds out the meal. Kumquat iced green tea is also available for $1.
So far, many of the new restaurant’s customers have been Chinese, Vietnamese, or locals.
Some Vietnamese diners have said Sereyroth’s version of Bun Dau tastes exactly like the original, and others say it even surpasses it.
“Sometimes we can’t communicate with them, they just point out what they want. But some have told us that this might even be better than it is in Vietnam because we make it less salty which tastes nicer,” she says.
While the dish mostly attracts Asian customers, some Caucasian customers have ordered the dish and made a return trip after enjoying it.
In addition to Bun Dau which is a cold dish, the eatery offers hot noodle soup, an all-time favourite in Vietnam which is sold on many corners in Phnom Penh.
At the end of August, Sereyroth started serving Bun Rieu as well, a noodle dish with minced crab which is also popular in Cambodia.
“The dish is called Nom Banh Chok Khuor Kdam in Khmer which literally means rice noodles with minced crab mixed with egg,” Sereyroth says.
Since the restaurant is doing well, she says she would love to expand to a bigger space for customers to enjoy their meals.
“For those who have not tried [Bun Dau] yet, I urge you to do so. We guarantee that Bun Dau will never disappoint you,” Sereyroth says, as she washes her hands and prepares to enjoy the dish herself.
The Bun Dau eatery in Phnom Penh is open from 9am to 9pm and is located at #365E0, St 128, Mittapheap commune, Prampi Makara district, Phnom Penh. Contact: 070 666 120 and 096 666 0133.