Bun cha: a tasty feast of colours and flavours

Hanoi cuisine features a wide variety of dishes with vermicelli.

Among them, bun cha (vermicelli with grilled pork and fresh herbs) delights, with its seductive taste and aroma. Nothing is better than savouring bun cha at a small food stand in summer, while the intriguing scent of grilled pork surrounds you.

“Bun cha is one of the characteristic Hanoi dishes long adored by locals,” said culinary artist Pham Thi Anh Tuyet, who has contributed significantly to the preservation of quintessential Hànoian food for years.

Writer Thach Lam, famous for his nostalgic prose about ancient Hanoi, wrote in Hanoi: 36 pho phuong (Hanoi: 36 streets and guilds): “bun cha is the most important and characteristic dish of Hanoi. No place offers better bun cha than Hanoi. Everyone, or at least food connoisseurs, would say that.”

“The one who created this dish deserves to be remembered, respected and commemorated by us: equally, or even more than, the way we remember one who wrote a literary work,” wrote Thach Lam.

bun cha: a tasty feast of colours and flavours hinh 0
Sizzling: Minced pork patties are grilled over a charcoal fire. VNS Photo Truong Vi

No one really knows when, where and how bun cha was created.

When Anh Tuyet was small, it was already a familiar dish in ancient Hanoi.

“In the old days, there were hardly any bun cha restaurants. The dish was found in the handwoven bamboo baskets of vendors who wandered the streets serving the dish,” said Anh Tuyet. “bun cha used to be eaten on summer days for its green herbs and fish sauce, which left diners with a fresh feeling which helped to fend off the summer heat.”

“Bun cha  offered by vendors is out of this world... Wherever the vendors stopped, that place would be filled with an impressive aroma of grilled pork,” wrote writer Vu Ngoc Phan.

Bun cha is a harmonious and healthy combination of rice vermicelli, grilled pork, and fresh herbs. This Hanoi staple is also a tactful blend of different tastes.

Dipping the noodles in the sauce, and eating bites of pork and fresh herbs - including lettuce, coriander, Lang basil and perilla - awakens all your taste buds.

Two types of grilled pork are served in bun cha: minced pork patties and thinly-sliced side belly pork. In the old days, the pork was clamped by bamboo sticks, which have since been replaced by wire racks, and then grilled over a charcoal fire. Nowadays, if one sees swhirling smoke while driving, it is likely a restaurant grilling pork for bun cha.

The accompanying dipping sauce features well-balanced saltiness (fish sauce), sourness (vinegar or lemon), spiciness (chili) and sweetness (sugar). The sauce is sometimes embellished with some thin slices of green papaya or kohlrabi and carrot pickles, looking like flowers floating in a little river.

This sauce not only indulges diners’ tastebuds, but offers a feast of colours including brown-yellow fish sauce, carrot’s natural orange, light white papaya, and bright red chili.

“The quality of bun cha depends a lot on the sauce and grilled pork. The pork must be tender and perfectly cooked,” said Anh Tuyet. "Whether the sauce is good or not depends on the delicacy of the cook’s taste. Some people have precise formulas, but for some cooks just tasting is enough to make the perfect sauce."

International fans

Nowadays, bun cha can rarely be found in vendors’ bamboo baskets anymore, but it is widely available on every Hanoi street. Locals eat bun cha for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is found in rural and urban markets, at food stands on the street, in fine restaurants, and also in many Vietnamese restaurants in foreign countries.

Jess Carey is an Australian traveller and blogger who is very passionate about Vietnamese cuisine.

"I love Vietnamese food, which is different from food in other parts of the world, because everything is so fresh. Among Vietnamese specialties, bun cha is definitely a favourite food for me and my husband,” said Jess.

“We are really lucky here in Melbourne to have lots of Vietnamese restaurants which offer bun cha. Compared to the bun cha I ate in Vietnam, it tastes just as good here in Melbourne but the price is unfortunately more expensive,” said Jess.

The Australian travel blogger also makes bun cha at home at least once per fortnight.

“I think a lot of people I know would enjoy it, but probably wouldn’t know what it is called,” said Jess.

On his recent trip to Vietnam, US president Barack Obama sampled a bun cha eatery on Ngo Thi Nham Street. Many major international news agencies ran the story, resulting in Vietnamese - and especially Hanoians - taking even greater pride in bun cha than ever before. This same restaurant now offers an ’Obama combo’, which includes a bowl of bun cha, a fried seafood spring roll and a Hanoi beer for VND85,000 (US$4): the same combo the US president ordered.

Anh Tuyet’s restaurant on Ma May Street in the famed Old Quarter also serves a wide variety of Hanoi specialties.

“Among them, bun cha is always asked for and loved by customers, especially foreigners,” said Tuyet.

VNS

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