While many people associate Vietnamese cuisine with the famous dish ‘phở’, there are actually many other delicious noodle dishes to discover (you can find out more about the various types of noodles available in Vietnam in our glossary). One such dish is ‘bún chả’, which consists of round rice noodles served with a bowl of flavorful dipping sauce, grilled pork, pickles, and fresh herbs. In fact, ‘bún chả’ gained worldwide attention when former US President Barack Obama was seen enjoying this iconic street food dish during his trip to Vietnam. If you want to recreate this delicious meal at home, here is the perfect recipe for you.
Vietnamese cuisine is renowned for being a sensory experience. If you ever visit a bún chả street stall during a busy lunch hour, you’ll understand why. The aroma of mouth-watering grilled pork patties and pork belly will hit you before you even arrive. As you approach, you’ll hear the sizzling of the meat and the occasional ‘pop’ when the melting fat hits the coal. The bustling sound of people coming and going on motorbikes, shouting orders, chattering and slurping, creates a unique ambiance that characterizes Hanoi’s street food stalls.
A plate of pearly white rice vermicelli, a basket of greens, a bowl of dipping sauce with some sliced pickled carrots and green papaya, and those beautifully charred pork pieces will be put in front of you. Grab a pair of chopsticks, take some rice vermicelli noodles, and dip them into the sauce. A perfect bite should contain a bit of noodles, a piece of pork, and a slice of pickles, all well-soaked. As soon as it hits your tongue, you’ll taste how perfectly balanced the dipping sauce is, with just the right amount of sweetness and sourness. You’ll notice how wonderfully the noodles complement it, how the crunchy and tangy pickles cut through the fatty pork, and how the marinated pork just melts in your mouth.
While bún chả is originally a street food specialty, nothing can beat the taste of homemade bún chả made by a Vietnamese mom. On a special weekend, she might set up a small charcoal stove in the patio and grill the meat, filling the whole street with a mouth-watering aroma. As a child, I would cheekily sneak a hot piece of meat freshly out of the stove, and that would always be the best piece of the whole batch. The pork marinade and dipping sauce in this recipe are adopted from my family’s favorite, and I hope it will soon become your favorite too!
HOW TO MAKE BUN CHA VIETNAMESE (RECIPE)
(GRILLED PORK, RICE VERMICELLI NOODLES IN SWEET & SOUR DIPPING SAUCE)
A. Vietnamese Caramel Sauce
- 70 grams (5 tbsp) sugar
- 150 ml (1/2 C + 2 tbsp) hot water
B. Grilled Pork
- 450 grams (1 lb.) pork shoulder or pork belly (choose a fatty piece to prevent the meat from drying out while being grilled)
- 450 grams (1 lb.) minced pork (choose minced pork with at least 10% fat)
- 50 grams shallots (about 6 – 8 shallots)
- 15 grams garlic (3 – 5 cloves)
- Fish sauce
- Oyster sauce
C. Side Pickles
- 400 grams green papaya, carrots, kohlrabi
- 25 grams (2 tbsp) sugar
- 15 ml (1 tbsp) rice vinegar or lemon juice
- ¾ tsp salt
- Fresh herbs to serve: coriander, perilla, lettuce, Vietnamese balm, …
D. Dipping sauce and Noodles
- Dipping sauce (nước chấm in Vietnamese) is an essential condiment in Vietnamese cuisine, and usually consists of fish sauce, sugar, lime juice/lemon juice/rice vinegar, water and minced garlic and chilli to taste. My preferred ratio for a perfect nước chấm bún chả is 1 sugar : 2/3 acid : 1 fish sauce : 7 water.
- 25 grams (1.5 tbsp) sugar
- 15 – 18 ml (1 tbsp) lemon juice/rice vinegar
- 175 ml (3/4 cup) water
- 15 – 20 ml (1 – 1.5 tbsp) fish sauce
- Garlic, chilli, black pepper – to taste
- 1.5 kg fresh rice vermicelli noodles or 0.5 kg dried rice vermicelli noodles
You can find a detailed recipe with specific notes on Savoury Days’ YouTube channel, which offers both English and Vietnamese versions. Make sure to subscribe to receive all newly uploaded recipes. The video can be found at the provided link, and for optimal quality, remember to turn on the HD setting.
Great idea! Here are some key points to keep in mind when making bun cha:
- Choose the right cuts of pork: Pork belly or pork shoulder are great options as they contain enough fat to keep the meat juicy and tender.
- Marinate the meat overnight: This helps to infuse the meat with flavor and make it more tender. Use a mixture of fish sauce, oyster sauce, minced shallots, garlic, and sugar.
- Use a charcoal grill: This adds a smoky flavor and char to the pork, which is essential for an authentic bun cha. If you don’t have a grill, you can also use a grill pan or broil the meat in the oven.
- Make the dipping sauce and pickles in advance: This allows the flavors to meld and intensify. The dipping sauce should be a balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors, and the pickles should be crunchy and tangy.
- Cook the vermicelli noodles just before serving: Follow the package instructions to cook the noodles until they are tender but not mushy. Rinse the noodles with cold water to prevent them from sticking together.
- Serve with fresh herbs and lettuce: These add freshness and texture to the dish. Common herbs used in bun cha include coriander, perilla, and Vietnamese balm.
By following these key points, you can make a delicious and authentic bowl of bun cha that will transport your taste buds to the bustling streets of Hanoi.
A. Picking the Cut, Marinating and Grilling the Meat:
- When making bún chả, it’s important to choose a fatty cut of pork, such as pork belly or pork shoulder, to avoid drying out the meat during grilling. While pork belly is fattier, I prefer using pork shoulder since it’s relatively leaner and the rendered fat takes on a delightful crunch and savory buttery flavor.
- In traditional bún chả, there are two types of grilled pork: patties (chả băm) and slices (chả miếng). These are what set bún chả from Hanoi apart from bún thịt nướng from the Central and Southern regions, both of which feature grilled pork served with rice vermicelli noodles.
- One other difference between the two regional dishes is the pork marinade. Bún chả’s marinade doesn’t include lemongrass, sesame seeds, or sesame oil, which are found in bún thịt nướng’s marinade. This is because Hanoi has a milder tropical climate than the Central and Southern regions, where lemongrass is more common in the culinary culture.
- When it comes to achieving the golden brown color of the meat, it’s important to note that Vietnamese caramel sauce (nước màu) isn’t the same as the sweet caramel sauce used for desserts. It’s simply a food coloring made by boiling sugar and water together. However, you can use golden syrup, honey, or even homemade golden syrup from leftover mooncake filling as a substitute. All of these will caramelize the sugar content of the marinade while grilling and give the pork a delicious chargrilled color and a smoky sweet caramel-like flavor. Just keep in mind that honey burns more easily than the other substitutes, so you’ll need to monitor your grill pan more closely if you use it.
- For the best flavor, charcoal-grilled pork is recommended over oven-grilled pork. If you’re using the oven, make sure to place the meat over a wire rack or pizza pan, which will expose it to heat from both the top and bottom. This will help distribute the heat evenly and keep the meat from drying out, resulting in tender and juicy grilled pork.
B. Pickles and Vegetables:
- Vietnamese cuisine is recognized as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world due to the presence of vegetables in almost all dishes. This is especially important in meaty and fatty dishes to balance out the flavors, textures, and nutrients. Vietnamese traditional dishes usually come with a generous serving of fresh herbs and vegetables and pickles that are usually served as a side dish in restaurants.
- In Vietnamese cuisine, pickles are an important accompaniment to many dishes such as bún chả, bún thịt nướng, or bánh xèo. Typically, pickles in bún chả are made with thinly sliced green papayas and carrots, but cucumbers or kohlrabies can also be used as substitutes. The combination of the green and bright orange colors of the pickles creates a visually appealing dish.
- Fresh pickles are preferred in Vietnamese cuisine over preserved ones. When making fresh pickles, it is recommended to add sugar before salt to make the pickles more crunchy. Adding salt too early can draw out the moisture from the vegetables and make them tough to chew.
C. Boiling the Rice Vermicelli:
- If you don’t have access to fresh rice vermicelli, dried rice vermicelli is a good substitute. While some packages suggest soaking the noodles in hot water, they may not expand correctly even after an extended period. Therefore, it’s recommended to boil them in a pot of hot water to ensure they are fully cooked. Afterward, poach the noodles through hot water again just before serving.
D. Making dipping sauce (Nước chấm):
- The salt level in fish sauce can vary depending on the brand, so there is no set ratio for making nước chấm.
- Instead, I suggest mixing sugar, lemon juice, and water together first, and then tasting it to ensure that you are happy with the amount of lemon juice. Gradually add fish sauce to taste, tasting the mixture as you go to identify which flavor component (sweet, sour, savory, etc.) is lacking.
- When adding garlic (and chili) to nước chấm, it is best to have them float on the surface for a more visually appealing appearance. Here are a few tips to achieve this:
- Finely mince the garlic without crushing it, and add it to the warm dipping sauce. Soak the garlic in a small amount of vinegar and sugar before adding it to the dipping sauce.