“I miss bun cha,” I told him while we were making our way to Cat Ba Island in northern Vietnam. We’d just finished floating on the beautiful Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and all I could think about is grilled pork.
I was expressing my longing for a dish we’d stuffed our mouths with on our second day in Hanoi. A beautiful dish that made me love Vietnam even more.
It started with an Anthony Bourdain-recommended book called “Eating Vietnam,” written by Graham Holliday. There is one chapter that is devoted to a northern Vietnamese dish called bún chả.
I’d been in Vietnam before—four years ago I traveled to Saigon, spending days slurping pho and getting wired on cafe sua da. I was alone, riding with strangers on motorbikes, having coffee with fellow travelers who were probably just as confused and lonely as I was.
Four years later, I returned with someone new in my life, someone who shares the same food obsession. Someone I love. The plan? To eat as much as our stomachs could handle.
Al fresco in Cao Go
The first bun cha was experienced near the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, right smack in the middle of the chaotic and beautiful city center. We followed a Guardian article recommending a place in Cao Go street—we actually missed it the first time we passed it, because it is a small, al fresco kitchen that was drowned by the bigger eateries in the street.
We only needed to say the words to the woman behind the makeshift kitchen: “Bun cha. Two.” I told her. In about three minutes, the bowls started coming out.
The sauce—a sweet, sour, and tangy concoction of fish sauce, vinegar sugar, papaya, and carrots—was the first thing that was served. Because we’d only found out about the dish in books and articles, we had no idea what it looked like exactly. We slurped, which was obviously not right, as it didn’t taste like soup. Post-trip research showed that this is a variation of nước chấm, or Vietnamese dipping sauce.
The meat, glorious grilled perfection of pork patties and pork strips (chả), as well as a heaping plate of vermicelli or white rice noodle (bún) and a bowl of greens (lettuce, cilantro, basil, and other herbs) soon followed. From this, we knew what we were supposed to do, with me immediately feeling weird for the slurping we’d just done.
The sauce was for dipping the vermicelli and the grilled pork, which Holliday has described in such a simple, yet dead-on accurate manner: “It’s the smoke that you notice first. Not the sight of it but the smell.”
The dish costs 25,000 to 40,000 Vietnamese dong (around 55 to 70PHP) per serving.
This is one of those dishes that uses simple ingredients but produces complex flavors. The combination of the different subtle flavors of the herbs, the smokiness of the grilled meat, and the sweet-sour-salty dipping sauce come together like magic; so good it almost hurt.
The whole sweet, salty fish sauce, pork ball, noodly, leafy, charred parcel exploded in one sensational gob-burst. It was fresh. the flavor was alive. This food tasted healthy. It was astoundingly good. Finally. This was Vietnamese food.
The beauty, ready for grilling.
There are fancier versions (priced at 40 to 45,000 dong), but the best bun cha are the ones on the streets. If you ever find yourself in Hanoi, make this your first order of business. Pho and the staples like spring rolls, bahn mi, and noodle dishes are everywhere. So is the strong coffee. Bun cha, however, demands a little bit of searching–if you don’t find it, keep searching, because it’s so damn worth it.
Fancier bun cha
A week post-Hanoi, back to our jobs in Manila. The portable grill he ordered just arrived two days ago. This means that we can practically bun cha anytime now.
If other couples have theme songs, we have a theme dish. He, a chef, has been looking for recipes online. We haven’t tried making it yet, but we will very soon, even though we both know it’s not going to be the same.
Bye bye, beautiful.
“I love you!” I randomly told him a week after the Hanoi trip. “Bun cha!” he replied, smiling. What a delicious response to my declaration of love. Nothing has ever sounded so apt.