Bún chả: a tasty feast of colours and flavours
Hà Nội cuisine features a wide variety of dishes with vermicelli. Among them, bún chả (vermicelli with grilled pork and fresh herbs) delights, with its seductive taste and aroma. Nothing is better than savouring bún chả at a small food stand in summer, while the intriguing scent of grilled pork surrounds you.
“Bún chả is one of the characteristic Hà Nội dishes long adored by locals,” said culinary artist Phạm Thị Ánh Tuyết, who has contributed significantly to the preservation of quintessential Hànoian food for years.
Writer Thạch Lam, famous for his nostalgic prose about ancient Hà Nội, wrote in Hà Nội: 36 phố phường (Hà Nội: 36 streets and guilds): “Bún chả is the most important and characteristic dish of Hà Nội. No place offers better bún chả than Hà Nội. 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 Thạch Lam.
No one really knows when, where and how bún chả was created.
When Ánh Tuyết was small, it was already a familiar dish in ancient Hà Nội.
“In the old days, there were hardly any bún chả restaurants. The dish was found in the handwoven bamboo baskets of vendors who wandered the streets serving the dish,” said Ánh Tuyết. “Bún chả 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.”
“Bún chả 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 Vũ Ngọc Phan.
Bún chả is a harmonious and healthy combination of rice vermicelli, grilled pork, and fresh herbs. This Hà Nội 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, Láng basil and perilla – awakens all your taste buds.
Two types of grilled pork are served in bún chả: 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 In the old days, the pork was clamped by bamboo sticks, which have since been replaced by wire racks, and then grilled over a charcoal fire.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 bún chả.
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 bún chả depends a lot on the sauce and grilled pork. The pork must be tender and perfectly cooked,” said Ánh Tuyết. “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.”
Nowadays, bún chả can rarely be found in vendors’ bamboo baskets anymore, but it is widely available on every Hà Nội street. Locals eat bún chả 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, bún chả 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 bún chả. Compared to the bún chả I ate in Việt Nam, it tastes just as good here in Melbourne but the price is unfortunately more expensive,” said Jess.
The Australian travel blogger also makes bún chả 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 Việt Nam, US president Barack Obama sampled a bún chả eatery on Ngô Thì Nhậm Street. Many major international news agencies ran the story, resulting in Vietnamese – and especially Hanoians – taking even greater pride in bún chả than ever before. This same restaurant now offers an ’Obama combo’, which includes a bowl of bún chả, a fried seafood spring roll and a Hà Nội beer for VNĐ85,000 (US$4): the same combo the US president ordered.