Fried fish noodle soup (bun ca) is another delicious noodle soup in Vietnam that is not well-known abroad, just like bun thang (Vietnamese vermicelli noodle soup with chicken, eggs and pork). It is a favorite dish of many people in the North of Vietnam, particularly in my hometown which is only 20 minutes away from the sea.
We often eat this noodle soup for breakfast or lunch all year round, but when this noodle dish really shines is right after Tet holiday (Lunar New Year). Tet is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture, and every family is full of holiday food with a lot of heavy and meaty dishes. As a result, we get tired of eating meat when the holiday ends and really appreciate a hot bowl of noodle soup with delicate, slightly sweet and sour broth made from fish bones and crispy fried fish toppings.
The broth is made from simmering fish scraps (bones or heads) of mild and white-fleshed fish. It is light, delicate and not overly fishy though you can still smell and taste the flavors of the sea. We can achieve this by rubbing the fish bones with salt and then rinsing them under water before simmering. After the simmering stage, tomatoes are added to add some acidity and sweetness to the broth and increase the umami of the dish.
If you are unable to get fish bones, it’s fine to use pork bone stock. However, I strongly recommend you to try the tomato dashi broth in my Fried fish cake noodle soup in tomato dashi broth recipe. It only requires kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (bonito flakes – shavings of dried, smoked skipjack tuna) and tomatoes. Kombu and katsuobushi are widely available at Asian grocery stores. Making dashi is simple and hassle-free, compared to simmering fish bones. Therefore, using dashi to make the broth reduces cooking time while the resulting clear broth also tastes as good as using fish bones.
For the toppings, fish fillets are cut into thin slices, and either lightly fried or deep fried, depending on how crispy you want them to be. You can use any fish fillets that can hold up well when fried. I have tried walleye and barramundi, and both work well in this noodle soup. At home, my mom usually uses grouper or barramundi fillets for this dish. Barramundi is a popular fish in Vietnam, and we call it “Vietnamese sea bass” (ca vuoc). In the U.S., it seems to be lesser known and my fishmonger only has it once in a while. Another important component of this noodle soup is dill. Its aroma complements both the broth and the fish really well.