Let’s back up a little bit. Before I tell you about dumplings in Hong Kong, or rice and fish in Palawan, we must go back to Vietnam, to Hanoi to be exact, a place where we found a love for flavors we didn’t even know existed. So, bend those knees, work those hips, and buckle up to your plastic stool–it’s time to ride thru the foodtrain that are Hanoi’s backstreets, and it is bound to be a wildly indulgent ride.
CHAPTER 1: BUN CHA
Hanoi is a City with a capital ‘C’. Picture hipster youth hanging around coffee shops, boutiques with Brooklyn style (I can’t believe I just said that), food stalls teeming with people, endless greasy mechanic shops servicing endless motorbikes, and groups of men sitting for coffee mid day or a fresh beer mid evening. Hanoi wakes up early in the morning and much of it goes to bed early too. It is, nevertheless, in a constant state of organized chaos, as all truly great cities are. It is real, it is very much Vietnamese, and yet by this point in our travels, it is also somehow familiar feeling. While many tourists find themselves wedged inside the stifling backpacker alleyways of the old city, greater Hanoi has so much more to offer then guided tours and mediocre ‘Western’ food. It has Bun Cha.
Bun Cha can best be described as a bowl of Nuoc Cham, a typical dipping sauce, filled with BBQ pork. We lovingly referred to it as BBQ Soup. But, that doesn’t even begin to explain what makes Bun Cha so damn good. To give you some context; we were in Hanoi for a week, SURROUNDED by exceptional cuisine, and we still ate Bun Cha every day, sometimes twice. Bam.
My Dearest Bun Cha, I think I love you. I just, I can’t stop thinking about you ever since we met. How come you get me? How come it feels so good when we’re together?
Bun cha is usually eaten for lunch. It consists of small ground pork patties along with strips of pork belly, a hefty pile of vermicelli noodles, a bowl of Nuoc Cham with carrot and daikon, and a mound of the now familiar herbs and lettuces. The key to good Bun Cha though, is that the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. Like any well composed dish, when you eat everything together, in one bite, is what separates the girls from the women. I can say that because mainly women do the cooking in this town.
While we did much of our Bun Cha research whilst eating our fare share, we also were lucky enough to take a cooking course that featured the beloved staple. (Thanks, GEMMA @Brewshopcoffee for that awesome gift!)
Here’s the gist: both types of pork get the same marinade. BOOM. A perfect combo of fish sauce, oyster sauce, coconut molasses, shallot, garlic, salt and pepps. The ground pork is given its shape by first slapping small balls of the mixture from one hand to the other thru mid air (practice makes perfect) and then lovingly smashing them between metal grates. Slap then smash. The belly gets laid in the same metal grates with a careful touch to ensure the entirety of the grate is covered in pork, as one does. These get grilled over a charcoal fire, which is maintained with constant fanning. The goal here: slowly cook the meat, turning it constantly, while also allowing for the maillard reaction to do it’s thing. The more char you can achieve without overcooking the meat, the better.
The deceptively simple dipping sauce, or ‘broth’ in this case, is a tried and true part of Vietnamese cooking. Fish sauce, water, sugar, rice vinegar, minced garlic and chili if you please. Toss in some previously salted carrot and daikon for crunch and you are ready to go, yaaaasss! Just place that warm charred meat in a bowl, cover with nuoc cham and watch the magic happen. Bits of blackened goodness will release themselves from the crispy edges of said meat and float around kicking like the little flavor nuggets they are. That combo of smoky/meaty/umami mixing with sweet/sour is what makes this dish so special.
There is obviously much more to say about the food, culture, and people of this city. Bun Cha is just one of many exceptional dishes we tried during our stay in Hanoi. But this dish exemplifies many of the things that I grew to truly appreciate about Vietnamese cooking. The fact is, Bun Cha is simple and yummy, it is hearty and warming and fun to eat. The cold/hot balance that is traditional to Vietnamese food is one of the many principles I am taking with me. Their philosophy, in a ying/yang sense, is that if you have a hot dish, it should always be balanced with something cold. Those crispy, often freshly rinsed greens and herbs on the side of a dish are not just for health, they are the key cold ingredient to their often hot counterpart. I am learning that balance in life, in food, in just about everything these days. It is a symbolism I do not take lightly.
If this is a space for reflection, for me to dump not only my food experiences but also my own thoughts, I must say – traveling and trying to stay present is riddled with it’s own challenges that are sometimes entirely new to me. But if I keep balancing the hot and cold, if I am mindful of my need for more ‘hot’ when I am ‘cold’ or vice versa, then perhaps I can tap into that which is missing at any given time. I have forgiven my body for the injury I am currently trying to heal, but I am still working towards the larger goal of forgiving myself for not listening to my needs with a sharper ear. It is a gift that I have the time and space from which to be thoughtful right now, this I know. So I will keep eating food that is great, and hopefully that food will continue to inspire me. Girl’s gotta have goals, right?
If you find yourself or someone you know in Hanoi, these were a few of our favorite spots to grab a bowl of Bun Cha:
But, as usual, the street food rules of thumb apply:
Are there lots of people eating there? Good.
Can you smell the meat grilling from up the road? Good.
Are they cooking over charcoal and can you see the person doing the cooking? Great. Now eat.