I was an intern in Hanoi, Vietnam in the summer of 2001. I’d never been to Vietnam before I accepted the job. I arrived on a dusty, sweltering afternoon and watched a rickety, faded metallic bus drive over the tarmac to pick us up as we disembarked the plane. The customs and border control officials, while serious and no-nonsense, sat behind painted plywood booths akin to lemonade stands. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a developed or glamorous place.
Nevertheless, I fell in love with the countryside, its people and the wonderful cuisine with an emphasis on light, fresh ingredients. I most especially loved bun. No, not like hamburger buns. Bun is a rice vermicelli noodle salad that can be served with all sorts of meats — chicken, grilled beef, pork patties, small egg rolls. On top of a cold bowl of noodles are heaps of fresh veggies, from bean sprouts to basil to mint to all sorts of other fresh Vietnamese greens I couldn’t even begin to identify and that probably aren’t widely available here in the U.S. Before work every morning, I’d stop by my favorite little bun house (or pho house, if I was in the mood for a noodle soup) and for less than a dollar I’d eat like a king. Good times.
Today I bring you a recipe for Vietnamese pork noodle salad, or bun cha.
I last went to Hanoi in 2011 under drastically different circumstances. The hubby and I were new parents, and, armed with the blinding ignorance and naïveté that only new, sleep-deprived parents can muster, we decided that our first trip with Ge Ge would be to Vietnam. Looking back, it was an awesome trip. We packed two giant suitcases for a four-day trip, which was definitely overkill in some ways and not in others. Traveling with a young child in a developing country means that you have to bring every last thing you might possibly need, down to the last diaper, since there’s not a Target just around the corner to supply you with extras. (Not coincidentally, that’s something we still find delightful about traveling with kids in the U.S. — no matter where we go, we can pretty much always get what we need if we happen to forget it). We strapped the baby into our baby carrier and lugged all eighteen pounds of him around the city nestled close to one of us, which was way safer than trying to push a stroller along the uneven, broken-up sidewalks past whizzing motorbikes, which frequently hopped a curb to avoid a traffic jam.
Today, back in our comfortable suburban life, I remind Ge Ge that he’s been to more countries at the age of four than most people visit in a lifetime, and how lucky he is. He usually responds with some variant of “because I’m Malaysian,” which is a badge of honor for him. He loves explaining who he is by where he was born. “In Malaysia, everyone eats fried rice for lunch.” “In Malaysia, everyone speaks Chinese and English like me.” “In Malaysia, I used to drink from coconuts on the side of the street and dance with monkeys.” Hey, we’re all entitled to a little embellishment every now and again (except, of course, if you’re Brian Williams — eesh).
But enough reminiscing. The bun cha recipe below is easy enough for a weeknight, and the ground pork patties are a wonderfully fatty complement to the crisp lettuce, carrots and cucumbers. Other recipes I investigated suggested julienne (matchstick cut) jicama, green papaya or bean sprouts. I’d imagine those to be excellent additions, providing a crisp contrast to the soft bed of rice noodles. The crowning touch of any good bun cha is the sauce, which is a mix of sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. It’s served on the side so that you can pour it over your salad at the very last minute, adding a boost of tang. Add the sauce before serving, and you run the risk of wilting your veggies, and no one likes a sad plate of saggy veggies drowning in sauce, no matter how flavorful that sauce might be. Also, purists might insist that the pork patties are grilled for a nice charred flavor, but I sear mine in a pan and it tastes just fine. Nevertheless, I could definitely see how grilling would add another depth to the bun cha.
In the meantime, try not to eat all of these pork patties in one go. They’re seriously so addictive. I may have envisioned cooking up a bunch and putting them in a paper popcorn box for our next movie night, but then the thought of greasy pork fingers on my white slipcovered sofas made my head explode, so I thought better of it.
Hey, even food obsessives have to draw the line somewhere.
- For the salad:
- 9 ounces rice vermicelli noodles (try to find Vietnamese-made, rounded ones about the thickness of spaghetti noodles)
- kosher or sea salt
- 1 cup matchstick cut carrot strips (julienne)
- 1 cup very matchstick cup cucumbers (Japanese or Persian preferred)
- 1 cup bean sprouts (optional)
- 4 tsp. granulated sugar
- 1 tsp. rice vinegar
- 2 lbs. ground pork
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 tsp. fish sauce
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 6 large leaves romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
- 1 cup roughly chopped fresh mint
- 1 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
- For the dipping sauce:
- juice of 1 lime
- 4 tbsp. Vietnamese fish sauce
- 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
- 2 tsp. sugar
- 2 tbsp. water (or more to taste)
- Put the noodles in a large bowl and cover with warm water. Soak for 10 minutes.
- While the noodles are soaking, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Prepare a bowl of ice water.
- Drain the noodles from the warm water and place in boiling water on the stove. Boil the noodles carefully until just cooked (al dente) (the water should have just returned to a boil after you place them in the pot). Drain the noodles again and dunk them into the ice water to stop them from cooking, then drain again. Place the noodles on a platter and fluff with chopsticks. Set aside to cool completely.
- Put the cucumber, carrots and bean sprouts (if using) in a colander and add 2 tsp. sugar, vinegar and a pinch of salt and mix well. Allow the vegetables to absorb the vinegar mixture, then drain well and blot with paper towels to absorb excess liquid.
- Put the pork in a bowl. Add 2 tsp. sugar, fish sauce, scallions and ¼ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. pepper. Mix the pork well so that the scallions are evenly distributed, then form the pork into small patties approximately 2 inches wide, so that you have 18-20 patties. Place on a platter and cover loosely with a damp paper towel.
- Heat a grill or pan over medium-high heat. Sear or grill patties in batches, approximately 2-3 minutes per side, until meat is cooked through and no longer pink. Remove from pan or grill and place on a paper towel-lined plate.
- Divide the rice noodles into four bowls. Divide the vegetables and pork patties evenly, then add lettuce. Top with cilantro and mint.
- Mix together the ingredients for the dipping sauce, adding more or less water to taste (the sauce should be tangy and fragrant, but not too sour).
- Serve dipping sauce with noodle salad.