On the summer days of May - 2016, the former US President, Barack Obama paid a three-day official visit to Vietnam. During that short trip, he was invited to have dinner with the swashbuckling chef Anthony Bourdain. They decided to try something a little bit local and Hanoian. Guess what they had? A bowl of delicious Bun Cha - Hanoi iconic dish of all time.
It certainly does look yummy, doesn't it?
So what is Bun Cha and why was the President of America so eager to try it? Let’s find out!
Bun Cha (Bún Chả) is a Hanoi food creation featuring the mighty rice noodles as the main ingredient. This simple dish is a symphony of many strikingly different flavors, the sweet and sour sauce, the savory of skillfully grilled pork patties and the freshness of local herbs. All the ingredients come so well together to create a perfect harmony of taste. Indeed, Bun Cha Hanoi represents the culinary simplicity of Vietnamese traditional food. It is just a mixture of a few easy-to-find components: pork, garlic, greens, noodles, and fish sauce.
So what makes Bun Cha so special and become a must-try dish when visiting Vietnam? The secret lies in its unique sauce, which as my mother has always said “the soul of Bun Cha”. Made up of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, and some minced garlic, the sauce may seem easy to make at first but finding the right balance between all these strong flavors poses a big challenge to even some of the greatest cooks. The perfectly balanced broth is sweet, sour and savory at the same time, also carrying subtle fishy taste that is quintessential to Vietnamese cuisine. A true creation of art! The sauce is then topped up with perfectly cooked pork, lightly charred, evenly cooked and moist with fat. Thinly-sliced carrots and green papayas may also be added, for crunch. On the side, the rice noodles arrive on a separate plate, ready to be dipped one bite at a time. Typically, Bun Cha is also accompanied by crab or pork spring rolls (nem cua bể or chả giò), which you can slice into your noodles, wrap in larger leaves of herbs, or just eat on the side.
What a typical serving of Bun Cha looks like
The way you eat Bun Cha is also quite simple. Just dip an amount of rice noodle directly into the meat sauce. Add chilies and fresh herbs according to your preference. And then slurp your yummy bowl. The rice noodles will soak up the broth, the fattiness coming from the pork and the natural aroma of uncooked vegetables. All in one mouthful! And I’m sure that you’ve already known it. Like any other noodle dishes, Bun Cha is meant to be eaten with chopsticks. So remember to leave your knife and folk at home.
Dip the noodles into the sauce, add fresh veggies and chilies and there you have a perfect-looking bowl of Bun Cha
Bun Cha can be found in every corner of Hanoi, from small street vendors to fine-dining restaurants. But if you want to eat like a Hanoian, come to the Old Quarter. Maybe start with a strong shot of vodka first to prepare your stomach. And then get ready to eat in places that in your home country would not pass any food hygiene regulations. Believe me or not, you would not regret it. Wandering around the Old Quarter area, if you spot some charcoal grills on the sidewalk, go there, you may find an authentic Bun Cha eatery. It is a place where people perch on low plastic stools, sit elbow-to-elbow while holding a small bowl of awesomeness. Munching on the delicious Bun Cha, seeing motorbikes passing by on the road, hearing the ever-honking noises, enjoying the gentle breeze of Hanoi autumn, that is the moment you know you’re having the most genuine experience - the authentic vibes of Hanoi.
The pork is thinly sliced and then grilled only by using charcoal stoves to get a smoky and aromatic flavor
Eat like a Hanoian - Sitting on the sidewalks while munching on your tasty Bun Cha
The final recommendation may seem familiar to you. It is the place where President Barack Obama had dinner with chef Anthony Bourdain. There is an interesting story about that event. Actually, on that day, they ordered 2 servings of Bun Cha, fried seafood rolls, and also fresh Hanoi Beer. These actually became a combo in the official menu, called Obama Combo. Well, I bet that combo must have been ordered thousands of times, don’t you think? The historic event has given the already-popular Bun Cha Huong Lien worldwide recognition. Almost any foreign tourists in Vietnam are so eager to give it a try. Will you do next time?