My sister and her husband came to visit two weeks ago, and, it being crab season in the Mid-Atlantic, we thought it’d be fun to try our hand at crabbing, which none of us had ever done before. We drove out to Chesapeake Beach, armed with our chicken necks, string, and lots of sunblock.

The only thing we were missing was a net. This turned out to be pretty crucial, but luckily we were able to buy a simple net there. It wasn’t long enough to reach from the pier down to the water, so we had to make several coordinated attempts to lure the crab to the surface while one of us lay flat on the pier, reaching down to the water with the net and trying to listen to the others’ instructions on where to turn the net and when to sweep it up.

This proved to be a complete and utter failure. After about an hour or so, we decided to extend the reach of our net by tying several sticks to the end of it, after which we fared a bit better.

The crabs loved the chicken necks, but due to our poor netting technique, we were only able to catch three crabs at the end of the day. Still, that was all we needed to make bun rieu cua, crab and tomato noodle soup.

Here are (clockwise) our crabs: Humbalang (which happens to be Dean’s favorite Cantonese word — it means “everything”), Herman, and Yut Jek Sow (Cantonese for “one-handed”).

When I was researching recipes for this, I discovered that everybody has a different way of making bun rieu. Most people, including my parents, use canned crab paste, which is quick and efficient but can also be laden with preservatives and such. There were only two recipes I found that didn’t: Wandering Chopstick’s and Andrea Nguyen’s in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. I was able to find jarred crab paste, but I decided to try making my own first. We ended up serving the jarred crab paste at the table, letting guests add a spoonful for extra flavor if desired.

I adapted my parents’ recipe, combining it with the two mentioned above, along with Luke Nguyen’s in Secrets of the Red Lantern and Ravenous Couple’s.

After the day’s efforts, we wanted to submit our adventures to this month’s Delicious Vietnam, a monthly food blogging event started by A Food Lover’s Journey and Ravenous Couple, and hosted this month by Buddha Bellies.

Bun Rieu Cua
Serves 6-8
Adapted from various sources

When my parents make this, they use 1 can of crab paste in soybean oil, putting half the can into the soup and the other half into the meat mixture. For this recipe, we followed Wandering Chopstick’s recipe for crab paste, but feel free to substitute with canned. Canned tomatoes are also often used (sometimes in addition to fresh), but we followed my parents’ method of using all fresh. Finally, we weren’t able to find water spinach stems this time, but it is one of the main garnishes in noodle soups like this one.

5 quarts water
1 lb pork bones
1 lb chicken bones
3 small crabs (we used our freshly caught Maryland blue crabs); you can also cook extra pieces of crab to add to the assembled noodle soup bowl at the end
1 chopped onion
6-8 large tomatoes
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp fermented shrimp sauce
1 Tbsp fish sauce

Crab Paste (adapted from Wandering Chopsticks):
canola or vegetable oil
2 shallots, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp fermented shrimp paste
2 tsp chili garlic sauce
2 Tbsp fresh crabmeat extracted from the fresh crabs

1 cup of crabmeat extracted from the fresh crabs
1/2 cup dried shrimp
1/2 lb ground pork
1 Tbsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 of the crab paste mixture (see ingredients above)
4 eggs

2 1-lb packages rice noodles
1 package fried tofu

Herb plate / garnishes:
water spinach stems
1 banana flower
assortment of Vietnamese herbs, such as cilantro, mint, purple perilla, Vietnamese coriander, and Vietnamese balm
bean sprouts
extra fermented shrimp paste

1. Parboil the pork and chicken bones in water. Rinse. Then fill a stockpot with about 5 quarts of water. Add the parboiled pork and chicken bones to the stockpot and boil. Skim off any scum and fat that forms at the top. (We actually had premade pork stock and chicken stock frozen from previous cooking, so we simply defrosted those and reheated them in the pot together.)

2. Scrub the crabs clean. This may be a little daunting if your crabs are still alive. You can either use gloves or tongs to grab the middle of the crab from behind with one hand (so it won’t be able to pinch you) and scrub it down under running water with the other hand. Or you can do what my mom does, which is kill the crab first by lifting the flap on its underside and stabbing it in the center with a chopstick. (Gruesome, I know… the things moms do to feed us a loving meal.)

3. In a separate pot, boil just enough water to cover the crabs. Once the water boils, add the crabs and cook until they turn bright orange. This should only take a few minutes. Lift out the crabs and take them apart to extract the meat, fat, and tomalley. Reserve all this for later. Add the crab’s cooking liquid and the crab shells to the large stockpot with the pork and chicken bones, and continue to simmer. (If you are using premade pork and chicken stock, you can make the process easier by putting the crab shells into a colander and submerging the whole colander into the stock. This will make it easier to remove the shells without having to strain the entire pot of stock. If you are making the stock from scratch, the whole pot of liquid will need to be strained before serving.)

4. To make the crab paste, heat a bit of canola or vegetable oil. Saute the chopped shallots and garlic in the oil along with 2 tsp of shrimp paste, 2 tsp of chili garlic sauce, and 2 Tbsp of the crabmeat. Reserve half of the crab paste for the stock and half for the meatballs.

5. Heat some oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion and saute until soft. Add the tomatoes and 1/2 tsp of salt. Saute until the tomatoes break down and their liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Add the shrimp paste and 1 Tbsp fish sauce, and stir until fragrant. Add a ladleful of stock to the pan and scrape up all the bits at the bottom. Turn off heat. At this point, if your stock has been simmering for at least an hour, strain out all the pork and chicken bones and crab shells. Add half of the crab paste and all of the onion and tomato mixture to the pot of stock and continue simmering.

6. To make the meatballs, first rehydrate the dried shrimp by covering it with some of the boiling stock. Let this sit for about 15 minutes. Drain and add the liquid back into the stock. Mince the shrimp by hand or in a food processor. Add the rest of the crabmeat into the food processor with the minced shrimp. Pulse a few times to mix together, but do not pulverize the crabmeat. In a bowl, mix the minced shrimp and crabmeat with the ground pork, 1 Tbsp fish sauce, 1/2 tsp salt, the remaining half of the crab paste mixture, and 4 beaten eggs. Set aside.

7. Soak the rice noodles for about half an hour. Boil a separate pot of water for the noodles

8. While the noodles are soaking and the water is boiling, assemble the herb plate. Take the water spinach stems and cut lengthwise into long, thin strips. Soak in cold water. The strips will curl. Prepare a bowl of water with about 1 tsp of salt for the banana flower. Remove the petals of the banana flower. I use only the petals and discard the stems inside, as they are astringent, but some people like to to keep them. Stack the petals together and slice into about thin shreds. Soak in the salt water to keep from browning. Keep the banana flower in the water until ready to serve. Cut the lime into wedges. Wash the scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces and then cut the pieces into thin strips. Wash and dry the herbs and bean sprouts. Assemble the water spinach stems, herbs, bean sprouts, and lime onto a plate, leaving room to add the shredded banana flower right before serving.

9. When the pot of water boils, add the noodles. Cook for about 3 minutes, until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water. Put an overturned bowl into a larger bowl. Pour the drained noodles into the larger bowl. The overturned bowl will help the noodles not cling together too much. Set aside.

10. Keeping the broth at a gentle simmer, drop in spoonfuls of the crabmeat, shrimp, and ground pork mixture. Add the fried tofu.

11. Place one serving of noodles into a strainer and dunk into the simmering stock for 5–10 seconds. Loosen the noodles with chopsticks. Lift the strainer carefully, allowing the stock to drain back into the pot. Place the noodles in a serving bowl. Repeat with each serving of noodles.

12. To assemble the noodle bowls, add several pieces of fried tofu and meatballs over the noodles. Ladle broth generously into the bowl, being sure to get some tomatoes in as well.

13. Serve with the plate of garnishes (including the banana flower), allowing guests to add the vegetables, herbs, squeezes of lime, extra dollops of shrimp paste, and chili garlic oil if desired.