I will never forget the first time I ate Bun cha. I was walking with a friend through the old quarter of Hanoi and we were craving for lunch. When we walked past a food stall and I saw what looked like the lukewarm salad Bun bo nuong xa I suggested to eat there. The interior contained a large screen television, family photos on the wall and a grandmother washing her grandchild. The food stall was the living room of a couple with a young child.
The man stood outdoor grilling meat on charcoal and the woman did the serving. Without any word exchange with us or the other customers, she immediately put a scale of fresh herbs and vermicelli on our plastic table. A pot with garlic and chillies was already there. When we got a bowl of grilled patties and pork belly in broth containing chunks of papaya, I was disappointed because it was not Bun bo nuong xa. I did not feel for noodle soup, I thought. We first just smiled and looked around us, because we had no idea how to eat this dish. We copied our neighbors: a little vermicelli, mixed salad and fresh herbs, garlic and chili peppers put in the bowl, eat with the meat and broth and then repeat again and alternate. I was astonished by what I tasted. I experienced one of the happiest moments in my culinary life. My friend and I ordered another serving.
It was not because of the unknown or the barbecued meat which I am so fond of, because the meat was not in a more special way prepared than I was used to and all the side dishes and garnish were known to me. It was the combination of light broth, the barbecued meats, crunchy papaya bits, sweet and sour pickled chillies and garlic together, that made Bun cha so heavenly. With every bite, a touch of sweet, salty and sour. I shamelessly ate almost the whole jar of pickled peppers and garlic, that combined very well with grilled meats and light broth.
My mother doesn’t know Bun cha. She has never been to Hanoi. I regret that, I hope I can let her taste authentic Bun cha in Hanoi once. If there is anyone in the world I wish to have Bun cha as I have experienced, it’s my mother. Because she always prepare ravishing food for others with her radiant smile and full of love.
There are several ways to make Bun cha. Usually the meat burgers are served with thinly sliced grilled pork belly which is marinated just like the patties. I leave it out here, there is plenty of meat. Bun cha is not a noodle soup. It is firstly grilled patties (and pork belly) with a bottom of fish sauce broth. The rest of the side dishes and garnish are to taste.
For an easy and fast preparation, use a disposable barbecue.
- 300 g pork steak and 200 g pork belly (proportion of lean and fat meat to taste)
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2½ tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 2 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp salt
- 6 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste
- 6 small shallots, finely chopped
- 1 scallion, thinly sliced (more to taste)
Fish sauce broth
Keep the fish sauce broth light. All the garnish and side dishes already provide extra flavor.
- 400 ml water
- 50 ml vinegar
- 40 ml fish sauce
- 40 g sugar
Pickled carrots and papaya
You can also use just only carrots or papaya. The vegetables can be cut in all kinds of shapes. The amount of vinegar, sugar and water is to taste. I make them for Bun cha preferably sweet. You can also follow the quantities of pickled carrots Dua ca rot.
- 1 small carrot
- ½ small papaya, about 150 g
- 6 tbsp vinegar
- 6 tbsp water
- 6 tbsp sugar
Pickled chili pepper or bird’s eye chili and garlic
Instead of pickled peppers and garlic, you can choose to serve it fresh and finely chopped. But pickled I find them irresistible and therefore indispensable.
- 3 chilli peppers or bird’s eye chili (for a lot of heat), thinly sliced
- 6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- 150 ml vinegar
- 100 g sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- Rice vermicelli, according to instructions
- mixed lettuce
- Fres herbs to taste: coriander, mint, Thai basil, etc.
- Grind the pork steaks and pork belly in a food processor. Add the sugar, fish sauce, black pepper, honey, salt, garlic and shallots to the meat and grind together. Put the minced meat in a large bowl and mix in the spring onions. Cover and put the minced meat for 2 hours or until over night in the refrigerator.
- For the pickled chili peppers and garlic, put in a jar the sugar, salt and the vinegar. Toss the sliced chili peppers and garlic in the vinegar and store in the refrigerator.
- For the pickled carrots and papaya, put in a large bowl the sugar, vinegar and water. Cut the carrots and papaya, remove the hard core of the papaya. I cut the carrot and papaya cross length into quarters and then into thin slices. Add the carrots and papaya in the vinegar, water and sugar and keep in the refrigerator.
- Make patties from the minced meat. I make them small and thin to barbecue quickly. With this amount I make about 16 patties.
- Make the fish sauce broth by dissolving sugar in water and vinegar on low heat. Add the fish sauce.
- Use a barbecue rack or place the patties on the barbecue and grill for about 10 – 15 minutes on both sides until golden brown.
You can also use an oven: preheat to 200 °C, grill golden brown on both sides (but barbecue is of course the best).
- Put on the table the noodles, fresh vegetables and herbs, pickled carrots and papaya and pickled peppers and garlic.
- Pour into an eating bowl some fish sauce broth for less than half of the bowl. Put about a tablespoon of pickled carrot and papaya in the broth to start. Serve about three patties per bowl. At the dinner table everyone puts a quantity of vermicelli, vegetables and herbs, extra pickled carrots and papaya, pickled peppers and garlic in their eating bowl to taste. Pour extra fish sauce broth to taste.
Obama and Bourdain enjoy Bun Cha in Hanoi
On May 23, 2016 President Obama along with Anthony Bourdain ate in a Bun cha restaurant in Hanoi. American TV cook and author Bourdain has a great love for the Vietnamese cuisine. In one of his culinary travel programs he was looking for a house in Vietnam, because he would be happy to live there. I enjoy his energetic travel programs a lot and find his crude statements entertaining. This memorable moment in the restaurant Bun Cha Huong Lien was captured by White House photographer Pete Souza and the crew of Anthony Bourdain, who was recording a new episode of the culinary travel program Parts Unknown. Both men posted the sociable pictures on their Instagram account: Instagram petesouza and Instagram anthonybourdain. Bourdain added to this: “Total cost of Bun Cha dinner with the President: $ 6.00 I picked up the check”.