This Vietnamese bun cha recipe makes the style of bun cha (bún chả) we used to eat for lunch on the streets of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi – smoky char-grilled pork patties and pork belly, fresh rice noodles, and fragrant herbs and greens, served with Vietnamese fried spring rolls. Pull up a blue plastic stool.
Bun cha (bún chả) must be the most quintessential Hanoi dish after pho (phở) and this Vietnamese bun cha recipe makes the typical bun cha we would lunch on in the Vietnam capital several times a week: smoky char-grilled pork patties and pork belly (the ‘chả’), served in or with a warm dipping sauce, rice noodles (bún), aromatic herbs and greens (perilla, ﬁsh leaf, basil, mint, coriander, butter lettuce, maybe sprouts), and fried spring rolls.
Local residents and foreign visitors alike have been known to become a little obsessed by bun cha. This is not a new thing. As Lara discovered during research, Northern Vietnamese journalist and spy Vu Dang Bang – who many consider to be Vietnam’s first food writer – wrote in his book of essays, Hanoi Delicacies, published in 1960, that Hanoi in the Fifties was a city “transfixed by bun cha.”
Born in 1913, Bang describes mobile cooks in the early 20th century, carting their portable barbecues made from French biscuit tin boxes, with poles across their shoulders, into the Old Quarter to peddle bun cha. Bang writes how the smoky aromas lured people from their homes onto the streets for bowls of barbecued pork swimming in fish sauce served with noodles on banana leaves with lettuce and coriander.
Bang, for whom Hanoi’s cuisine lived on in his memory during decades in exile in Saigon, dedicated a whole chapter to bun cha, writing: “Even if I was abducted for a thousand years, I would remain a Vietnamese longing for the food in Hanoi.” We get it.
Vietnamese Bun Cha Recipe – Char-grilled Pork Patties, Pork Belly, Noodles, Herbs
During the three months we lived in Hanoi, our minds would be on Vietnamese food from the time we woke up and sat down to work in the morning until it was time to head out to lunch. Of all the Vietnamese specialties we could contemplate eating, it was usually bun cha that would get us salivating. We first tried bun cha on a food tour soon after arriving in the city, and after renting an apartment (on ‘Food Street’ of all places) we began to seek our more bun cha spots.
However, we became a bit obsessed – as bun cha lovers do – with the way one particular woman, a roadside cook we’d serendipitously stumbled upon one day, made her bun cha. If we were too late and she’d already packed up her brazier, her fan, and her blue plastic tables and stools, and gone home for the day, we’d be devastated.
Lara would see the sooty black charcoal marks on the footpath and regret having laboured over a story that morning. I could see her thinking: was meeting a deadline really worth missing out on bun cha? We’d consult Google maps and our list of other street food spots and restaurants and head off in search of another. But they were never the same, not even the joint where Barack Obama ate bun cha with Anthony Bourdain.
So what made our favourite bun cha, or rather, what makes one Vietnamese bun cha recipe, better than another? Firstly, the flavour and the smokiness of the pork patties and pork belly. The smokier the better – you can smell the best bun cha joints from the next block.
The bowl of nuoc mam (nước mắm), in which the pork patties and pork belly are sometimes served in like a broth or served on the side as a dipping sauce, can be warmed or at room temperature, but regardless, it must be well balanced in that salty, sour, sweet, and tangy way. It shouldn’t be too fishy, too vinegary or too sugary.
The rice noodles should be fresh, even if that just means boiling dry vermicelli and cooling them down just before serving, and the herbs and greens should also be fresh, aromatic, crunchy, and crispy – not the wilted, brown-at-the-edges rabbit food that Lara reports having eaten with a guide on a recent trip.
Notes on this Vietnamese Bun Cha Recipe
The most distinctive attribute of the barbecue pork for this Vietnamese bun cha recipe is that it must be cooked over charcoal to achieve that smoky flavour. In Hanoi we used to sniff out the bun cha joints and we’d know that there’d be a bun cha stall tucked down a laneway from 100 metres away just from the smoke and the aromas.
While the bigger indoor bun cha restaurants will have two cooks hunched in front of a long BBQ tray almost the width of the eatery, a smaller stall with little more than a handful of blue plastic stools around a low stainless steel table will generally have just one person cooking over a single brazier on the footpath.
Because of the smoke factor, bun cha is best made outdoors – or indoors with the battery taken out of every smoke alarm of your house or apartment. You didn’t hear that from me. But seriously, if done correctly, it’s too smoky to prepare indoors.
One of the most ingenious elements of this dish is the BBQ grilling basket that holds the pork patties and the pork belly. You lay all your patties and pork belly in the grilling basket so instead of having to individually turn each piece, you just flip the basket over. Because of this, though, you really need to ensure your pieces of pork belly and patties are uniform in size so that the cooking is even.
I guess you’re wondering if you do cook this indoors, how do you achieve that signature smoky flavour? I use a Japanese disposable aluminium grill plate that consists of a slotted sheet of aluminium with a grill grid on top. I heat up and break up a charcoal briquette and place it on the slotted sheet. The smoke comes from the pork fat and marinade dripping onto the charcoal. Remember to put your extractor fan on high!
At most Vietnamese bun cha stalls in Hanoi, we would also be offered or automatically served deep fried spring rolls or nem ran with our bun cha. We’ve got you covered with our nem ran recipe.
Vietnamese Bun Cha Recipe for Chargrilled Pork Patties, Pork Belly, Noodles, Herbs
- 25 ml fish sauce
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 8 red shallots, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 300 g pork belly, sliced into 2 cm wide strips
- 350 g pork shoulder, minced
- 1 egg, whisked
- 10 garlic chives, sliced
- 600 g rice vermicelli
- 150 g bean sprouts
- 1 butterhead lettuce
- 1 bunch coriander leaves
- 1 bunch perilla leaves
- Bun Cha Dipping Sauce
- 30 g sugar
- 50 ml fish sauce
- 50 ml rice vinegar
- 50 ml lime juice
- 1 long red chilli, seeded and chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 40 g carrot, shredded
- 40 g radish, shredded
- Whisk together the fish sauce, crushed garlic, shallots and sugar until the sugar is dissolved.
- Mix half the sauce with the pork belly and marinate in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours and a maximum of 4.
- In a large bowl combine the pork mince with the egg, garlic chives and fish sauce marinade. Cover and marinate for 2 hours to let the flavours combine.
- Boil a large pot of water and remove from heat. Soak the vermicelli in the water for 4 minutes, remove with tongs and refresh under cold water while separating any clumps of noodles. Cut the noodles to 15 cm lengths and coil into a large bowl for serving.
- Remove the pork mince mixture from the refrigerator and with wet hands, shape into patties that are roughly 1 cm in height and 5 cm diameter. Place on a tray on parchment paper until ready to grill. Remove the pork belly as well and bring up to room temperature.
- To make the dipping sauce, combine the sugar, fish sauce and rice vinegar in a small saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add 200 ml of water.
- Place the pork patties and pork belly pieces into separate BBQ grilling baskets. Cook the patties and pork belly on a hot barbecue or grill for 3 minutes a side. Check for doneness and keep warm until ready to eat.
- There are many different ways to serve this dish. If you’re serving it to guests, give each one a bowl with some noodles, a pork pattie, a couple of pork belly pieces in it. Add a little of the sauce and a few pieces of carrot and radish to make it look pretty.
- Place the rest of the pork on a platter. Arrange another platter with the noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs and place in the middle of the table.
- In true Hanoi style serve with Vietnamese deep fried spring rolls (nem ran).
Are you a bun cha fan, too? Do let us know if you make this Vietnamese bun cha recipe – we’d love to hear your feedback and find out how it turned out for you.