Our Vietnamese bun cha recipe makes bún chả Hanoi in the style of bun cha we used to eat on the streets of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi – smoky char-grilled pork patties and pork belly, served in or with a warm dipping sauce, fresh rice noodles, fragrant herbs and greens, and Vietnamese fried spring rolls. Pull up a blue plastic stool.
Bun cha or more correctly bún chả is the most quintessential Hanoi dish after pho (phở) and this Vietnamese bun cha recipe makes an authentic bun cha in the Hanoi-style, which we would eat several times a week when we lived in the Vietnam capital.
The Hanoi is the birthplace of bun cha and the Hanoi-style of bun chai consists of smoky char-grilled pork patties and pork belly (the ‘chả’), served in or with a warm dipping sauce, fresh rice noodles (bún), aromatic herbs and greens (perilla, ﬁsh leaf, basil, mint, coriander, butter lettuce, maybe sprouts), and fried spring rolls, which are optional.
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 Hanoi’s 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.” Oh, we get it.
Vietnamese Bun Cha Recipe for 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 for an early lunch. Of all the Vietnamese specialties available that we could contemplate eating, it was usually bun cha that would get us salivating.
We first tried bun cha on a Hanoi street food tour very soon after arriving in the Vietnamese capital. We became so seduced by the dish and the street food in Hanoi that we were soon extending our visas and signing a lease on an apartment rental (on ‘Food Street’ of all places).
We quickly began to seek our more bun cha spots – as bun cha lovers do – becoming a little bit obsessed with the way one particular roadside cook, who we’d serendipitously stumbled upon one day, made her bun cha.
In Hanoi bun cha is traditionally eaten in the morning, for breakfast, brunch, a snack or early lunch. It was a challenge to find a bun cha place open after midday. If we were late and our favourite cook had already packed up her brazier, fan, and blue plastic tables and stools, we’d be devastated.
Lara would see the sooty black charcoal marks on the footpath where the woman normally grilled her pork patties over smouldering coals 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 casual eateries and head off in search of another. As good as they were, they were not as great, not even the joint where Barack Obama ate bun cha with Anthony Bourdain.
So what made our favourite bun cha better than the others? 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 a block away.
The bowl of nuoc mam (nước mắm), in which the pork patties and pork belly are sometimes swimming in like a broth or served on the side as a dipping sauce, may be warm or at room temperature, but regardless, it must be well balanced: salty, sour, sweet, and tangy. It shouldn’t be too fishy, too vinegary or too sugary.
The rice noodles should be fresh, and if Vietnam that means they were made that morning. But for you that might mean boiling dry vermicelli and cooling them down just before serving. The herbs and greens should also be super fresh, fragrant, crunchy, and crispy – not the wilted, brown-at-the-edges rabbit food that Lara reports having eaten with a guide on a recent Vietnam trip.
Tips to Making 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. We’d know from the aromas that there’d be a bun cha stall tucked down a laneway 100 metres away, even before spotting the plumes of smoke.
While the bigger indoor bun cha restaurants will have two cooks hunched in front of a long barbecue 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. The spring rolls are optional, but for us they’re a must and part of that authentic Hanoi bun cha experience. 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 tbsp 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.