As I have mentioned previously, I found eating in Vietnam a very frustrating affair, with the best Vietnamese food largely inaccessible to the average tourist. Sadly most tourists (who find themselves on the almost inescapable tourist trail that runs from Hồ Chí Minh City to Hạ Long Bay) leave the country with a scant appreciation of the full potential of Vietnamese cuisine, having being fed on an uninspired diet of spring rolls and, if you were lucky, some mediocre phở. These lacklustre experiences are especially tragic to those tourists who seek out new food experiences. Considering authentic Vietnamese food has such a wealth of flavour, it is a shame that there isn’t more of it on offer to the willing tourist! Coming from a South East Asian food culture where authentic street-food is accessible and transparent, I found the Vietnamese surprisingly guarded about their food – often openly discouraging you from joining them for a simple bowl of noodles on the side of the road, preferring to usher you back to the tourist cafés with their English menus and homogenised Vietnamese food.
Which is why I love Bún Chả! Tasty, cheap and satisfying, Bún Chả makes for a great meal, but above all, Bún Chả is relatively accessible to foreigners on the prowl for some authentic street-food. It has been said that on the streets of Hanoi, “where there is smoke, there is Bún Chả!” and even if you only end up ordering it in a tourist café, it is still tasty and fun to eat!
Second only to the almighty and omnipresent Phở Bò, Bún Chả is perhaps one of Vietnam’s most popular dishes, especially in the North of the country where it is thought to have originated from. Made up of a plate of grilled pork, salad, a dipping sauce and bún noodles (rice vermicelli), Bún Chả is a complete meal in itself. Traditionally the meat takes the form of patties made up of pork mince, but I like to add some sliced pork to the dish as it adds an extra dimension to the overall meal.
Whilst I am unsure of the exact etiquette for eating Bún Chả, I have taken to soaking the meat in the dipping sauce, adding a bit of the noodles, followed by some of the salad. Then, using chopsticks, everything gets shoved into my mouth. It certainly isn’t elegant, but it is damn tasty!
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Bún Chả (Vietnamese Grilled Pork, Salad & Noodles) : Serves 4
- 800g ground pork mince
- 800g boneless pork neck, thinly sliced
- 1 large shallot, peeled and finely minced
- 4 stalks lemongrass
- 4 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 4 tablespoons plain oil
- 2 tablespoon fish sauce
- 4 tablespoons Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (Nước Màu)
- 2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 400g dried rice vermicelli noodles
- 1 head butter lettuce
- 1/2 cup mint leaves
- 1/2 cup coriander leaves
- 1/2 cup basil leaves
- 200g beansprouts
- 2 cups warm Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Nước chấm)
- Lay the sliced pork neck on a chopping board. Cover in Clingfilm and then lightly pound the meat
- Trim the end of the lemongrass and remove the outer layers. Split the outer layers of the lemongrass lengthwise and set aside for later (if using). Finely mince the soft inner cores
- Along with the minced shallots and garlic, put the minced lemongrass cores into a bowl. Add the plain oil, fish sauce, caramel sauce, salt and pepper. Mix to combine the marinate thoroughly
- Now divide the marinate between two bowls – add the minced pork in one and the sliced pork in the other. Using your hands, mix both thoroughly. Cover both bowls and refrigerate for a couple of hours
- Once the meat has had enough time to marinate, remove the minced pork from the fridge
- Take a handful of the minced pork and place one of the lemongrass strips in the centre of the meat. Using your hands, press the meat around the lemongrass, creating a “sausage”. Lay the pork in the middle of a piece of Clingfilm, fold the Clingfilm over the meat and, using your hands, press the sausage into shape. Place your sausage onto an oiled plate. Continue until you have used up all the meat. Alternatively, form the pork into small patties about 2 inches in diameter. Cover the plate in Clingfilm and return to the fridge to firm up a little
- Cook the dried vermicelli noodles as per the instructions. Drain thoroughly (I use a salad spinner for this!) and cover with a damp tea towel until needed
- Wash the lettuce, beansprouts and herbs. Soak in some cold salted water for 5 minutes, after which rinse and then dry (again, I use a salad spinner)
- Place both meats on a meat rack and cook over a charcoal fire (or under a hot grill) until lightly caramelised on the outside and cooked through – this should take about 10 to 15 minutes
- Serve the cooked meats with the lettuce, beansprouts, herbs, noodles and a bowl of dipping sauce (1/2 cup per person)