This dish is a Hanoi native. Flattened pork meatballs are grilled until caramelized and served atop a bed of vermicelli noodles alongside lettuce and fresh herbs, with the whole lot dressed in that ubiquitous Vietnamese sauce, nuoc cham. It is a light and delicious dish that is not only perfect street food, but also perfect for whipping up a simple but impressive dinner at home. Also, fun fact, bun cha is the dish that Anthony Bourdain and President Obama ate during their dinner in Hanoi for No Reservations.
While bus cha does not necessarily require a trip to Hanoi, it might require a trip to your local Asian market to find vermicelli noodles, but that is something I always encourage anyway. I know that not everyone enjoys grocery shopping as much as I do, but I love supporting these small businesses and I find it impossible to go to a specialty market and not leave with at least a few interesting unknowns to try when I get home. Sometimes it’s a new sauce, sometimes it’s a fruit or baked good I’ve never had before, sometimes it’s just some interesting snack or candy, but I always find something. My last Asian market stop was a little Filipino grocery in Indio, CA, and I left with, in addition to all of the staple ingredients I was searching for, my first bottle of banana ketchup and a bunch of pan de ube, delicious, shiny rolls stuffed with a sugary purple sweet potato filling. You don’t always have to travel far to find interesting new foods.
Alternatively, you can order a lot of this stuff off the internet these days, if you don’t have a local Asian grocer. But have a look, there are a lot of them out there, and supporting small, family-owned businesses is always a noble endeavor.
Returning to the dish at hand, the only real specialty ingredients are vermicelli noodles and perhaps fish sauce, lemongrass paste, and daikon, though the last three are becoming more and more available around the country. Fish sauce is just about everywhere now, lemongrass paste is almost as prevalent, and both can be ordered online. Daikon is tougher, but turnip has a similar crunch and makes a decent replacement.
So, if you’re stuck at home right now in a spring that seems to be dragging its heels, why not take a little trip to the Asian market and then take your tastebuds on a trip to the busy streets of Hanoi? We’ll see you there!
1 lb. ground pork
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp lemongrass paste
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp white pepper
2 tbsp fish sauce
½ cup water
2 tbsp sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp lime juice
1 thai chili or serrano, thinly sliced
½ lb. vermicelli rice noodles
Lettuce leaves, chopped large
Julienned carrot and daikon (quick pickled, if you’re feeling ambitious)
Getting all of your accoutrements ready before you start cooking is the name of the game with bun cha. Once your noodles, veggies, and sauce are ready, all you have to do is cook up the meatballs and you can dish out bowls in no time. Street food at its best.
Julienne your vegetables and, if you are feeling ambitious, quick-pickle the carrot and daikon following this recipe. If you want to pickle, plan to do this a day or two ahead of time.
Cook the vermicelli noodles according to package directions. Vermicelli noodles cook very quickly, needing only a couple of minutes in boiling water to be perfect. The noodles are typically served lukewarm or cold, so this can be done well in advance of serving.
To make the nuoc cham dressing, simply combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved. The flavor improves over time, so make this before you start the meatballs.
And now on to the protein. Combine all of the meatball ingredients and form them into 12-16 even patties. Bring a skillet to medium heat and cook them until nicely browned on both sides. Because of the sugar, they will burn easily, so make sure the heat is not too high. If the heat is right, the meatballs will be perfectly cooked through and nicely caramelized on both sides.
To serve, place chopped lettuce leaves in the bottom of a large bowl, add a nice helping of noodles, top with the julienned vegetables, herbs, and meatballs, and then drizzle with a healthy pour of nuoc cham. Be sure to reserve a bit of the dressing for those who would like to add more throughout the meal.