“Good food is very often, even most often, simple food”- A. Bourdain. Bun Cha is just such a thing. Bun Cha is a beautiful thing.
It’s a vibrant mix of juicy caramelized pork meatballs shaped like discs, delicate vermicelli, fresh garnishes… All united by one refreshing, flavorful light dipping sauce. Every single bite is pure harmony.
We have great admiration for Vietnamese cuisine. It brings together various ingredients that tingle all the senses in a way that is truly unique. Be it their popular phos or banh mi sandwiches, or this Bun Cha. Everything is delicately seasoned yet delivers a big flavor punch.
Every country is known for their popular special dishes, and very few people leave Vietnam without slurping into a bowl of Bun Cha, present all over the streets of Hanoi.
No wonder President Obama’s chopstick skills with Bun Cha were the talk of the world in 2016 with Anthony Bourdain. Of all the dishes he could try, he chose Bun Cha, finished two servings that night and bought four to go. Well if it’s good enough for Barack, it is good enough for me!!
What is Bun Cha?
Bun Cha is Hanoi’s most popular street food. Chances of you encountering it everywhere you turn is pretty high. It seems like people slurp it away for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s a timeless recipe.
No one exactly knows which Hanoin’s brain came up with the dish that combines grilled pork, rice noodles, herbs and that very special dipping sauce called nuoc cham into one bowl.
“Bun” means noodles and “Cha” means grilled meat. Most of the time, different components of Bun Cha are served separately in different bowls and dishes.
Everyone makes their own Bun Cha bowl just the way they want. Some might want more dipping sauce, some might need more heat of bird eye chili, and some might like more herbs or veggies along with their meat.
Bun is typically delicate vermicelli noodles, served cold. The Cha part is the star of the dish, mostly two kinds of grilled meats. Moist and juicy caramelized ground pork patties and grilled pork belly.
Both are beautifully seasoned with aromatics, fish sauce and sometimes lemongrass and other spices. They are typically grilled on hot charcoal.
While the meat is the star of the meal, it really shines with the dipping sauce called nuoc cham. It’s a mix of fish sauce, red chilies, garlic, sugar and lime juice.
Veggies that you often find in Bun Cha bowl are carrots, cucumber, raw papaya and sprouts. The herb part usually consists of some kind of lettuce, basil, mint and betel leaf.
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How to eat Bun Cha
Some serve it with lots of dipping sauce like broth, and some serve it like a noodle salad with dipping sauce as a dressing. To really enjoy the essence of Bun Cha every bite should have all the components together.
How do you achieve it? Some put noodles and herbs in the sauce and eat everything with a piece of grilled meat. Some people wrap the meatballs or pork belly in lettuce leaf or betel leaf and then dip it in the sauce and eat with noodles.
What does Bun Cha taste like?
The caramelized meatballs and pork belly have a hint of sweetness and are juicy and tender. The sauce is a balance of sweet, umami, sour and a touch of spicy.
The combination of all the flavors, the spiciness of chilies and garlic, with the saltiness of fish sauce, balanced out by the sweetness of sugar and the sour of the lime juice, all with caramelized rich fatty pork meat… Hmm, there is simply a lot going on here.
It’s a whole pleasing experience, eating your bowl of Bun Cha…
How to make Bun Cha
Let’s talk about every component of Bun Cha separately
1. Cook vermicelli noodles according to the instructions on the packets, drain and store them in a bowl. They are served cold or room temperature.
2. Gather all your garnishings like lettuce, mint, basil, cilantro, matchstick carrots and sprouts.
3. Make the dipping sauce, aka Nouc Cham: Boil fish sauce, white vinegar and white sugar along with water until sugar dissolves. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool. Add in lime juice along with chopped garlic and bird eye chilies.
4. Pork meatballs & Pork belly: Traditionally, a Bun Cha bowl has two kinds of pork meat. Ground pork patties and some fattier cut like pork belly. I wanted to recreate Hanoi street food style Bun Cha, so I am using both. You can give pork belly a miss and only do pork meatballs if you wish.
You need to marinade both before making patties and cooking. Make a marinade with fish sauce, green onions, garlic, soy, white sugar and pepper.
Some people use lemongrass, as you find the flavor in a lot of Vietnamese food, but traditional Bun Cha rarely has it. You can add little if you have that on hand. Don’t go out of your way to get it just for this recipe.
Use half of this marinade for the ground pork, and half for the pork belly cut into 1 inch pieces. The more you marinate, the more flavorful they will end up.
When ready to cook you, make small disk shaped meatballs out of the ground meat. Since some of us don’t have a charcoal grill ready to fire, it’s easy to cook in any of your char-grilling pans, or even cast iron.
Heat just a little oil over medium high heat and sear the patties till they get brown all over. Since they are small and flat, they just take 2-3 minutes per side to get golden brown all over.
Cook the pork belly till it gets brown all over. This also happens pretty fast. Plate them out.
Now How to Serve Bun Cha
Present your Bun Cha to your friends and family for their first ever experience of this fabulous Vietnamese meal in your very home.
You can serve every component on a separate plate, or arrange everything on one large platter. Give individual bowls to every one to make their own bowl.
First place some noodles in a bowl, followed by meatballs and pork belly pieces. Douse everything generously with nouc cham/ dipping sauce. You need plenty of sauce to slurp everything.
Some people might frown at a fish sauce based dressing, but like other Vietnamese food it’s the soul of the dish. It’s not very fishy as you boil it with the rest of the ingredients, just a little more umami than regular soy sauce.
Throw in whatever garnishings you want and there you go… Ready to slurp into one harmoniously delicious meal.
You are going to get amazed of all the contrasting flavors and textures in this meal. If you are looking for something novel. light, refreshing and full of flavors, Bun Cha is for you. It’s a great dish for summer time when you fire up the grill, but it’s equally great in winter, when you pan seared it in a grill pan.
All the bold flavors will comfort the soul. Get your palate beyond banh mi and phos. Try this Bun Cha, it’s a beautiful, simple thing…
Bun Cha, on my Gypsy Plate… enjoy!
For Meatballs & Pork Belly
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 pound pork belly (see note 1)
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 4 green onions, finely chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce (use dark soy sauce, if available )
- 2 Tbsp white sugar
- 1 tsp ground pepper
- 1.5 Tbsp oil for cooking
For Nouc Cham (Vietnamese dressing/dipping sauce)
- 1/2 cup fish sauce
- 3 Tbsp white vinegar
- 3/4 cup white sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2 Tbsp lime juice
- 1 birds eye red chili, finely chopped (see note 3)
- 2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
For Bun Cha Bowl
- 11 oz dried vermicelli noodles
- A few lettuce leaves (we used Boston lettuce)
- Handful of sprouts
- 1 carrot, julienne cut
- Handful of mint, cilantro, basil
- Cook vermicelli noodles according the instructions on the packets. Drain and store them in a bowl. They are served cold or room temperature.
- Gather all your garnishings like lettuce, mint, basil, cilantro, match sticked carrots and sprouts.
- Make Dipping Sauce aka Nouc Cham: Boil fish sauce, white vinegar and white sugar along with water until sugar dissolves. Transfer to bowl and allow to cool. Add in lime juice along with chopped garlic and bird eye chilies.
- Make a marinade with fish sauce, green onions, garlic, soy, white sugar and pepper. Use this marinade, half for the ground pork and half for the pork belly, cut into 1 inch pieces. The more you marinate, more flavorful they will end up.
- Make small disk shaped meatballs out of the ground pork.
- Heat oil over medium high heat in grill pan and sear the patties till they get brown all over, 2-3 minutes per side, and remove to a plate.
- In the same pan, cook the pork belly till it gets browned, then remove to a plate.
- Place vermicelli noodles in a bowl, followed by meatballs and pork belly. Spoon over generous amount of dipping sauce or dressing (it's supposed to be like soup both). Add in lettuce, carrots, sprouts along with cilantro, basil and mint. Slurp!!
1. If you are not using pork belly, double the amount of ground pork and use the same marinade proportions. If only using one pound of ground pork but omitting pork belly, halve the marinade amounts.
2. If you are using lemon grass, use 2 tsp finely chopped (only the white parts) in the meatball marinade.
3. Birds eye chilies are small red chilies that are quite spicy. To make it less spicy, use large red chilies instead (which are not as hot), or skip it.
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