Our Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe with a tangy-sweet sauce and fresh herbs will make you a delicious Vietnamese rice noodle bowl. Mouthwatering tender meatballs are doused in a delightfully tangy-sweet sauce, sprinkled with crispy fried shallots, and served with a carrot-daikon quick pickle, crunchy cucumber, and fragrant herbs. This dish is inspired by bún chả, a traditional Hanoi specialty, but it’s not bún chả.
As much as I adore this authentic Vietnamese bún chả Hanoi recipe, based on the bún chả we used to eat a few times a week when we lived in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, sometimes we don’t have time to get the grill going and coals smouldering. And our next door neighbours probably don’t appreciate their clothes drying on the balcony reeking of smoke.
So I make this delicious and easy Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe instead, as it has a few elements that remind me of the Hanoi street food specialty, even if it’s not bún chả. This is what a typical bún chả looks like that’s cooked and eaten on the streets of Hanoi, and increasingly elsewhere in Vietnam.
As you can see, it’s quite different to this Vietnamese rice noodle bowl although Google would have you believe otherwise. Amongst authentic traditional bún chả recipes, search results also bring up Vietnamese-inspired rice noodle bowls similar to my own.
Which is why when an annoyed Vietnamese food tour operator friend alerted me to this confusion, I thought this was as good an opportunity as any to clarify things. Names are important, especially when we’re cooking and writing about cuisines that are not our own.
If the subject interests read on; if not, scroll directly down to the tips section, as there are a few important things to know before cooking this dish. But before I tell you more about our Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe, I have a favour to ask.
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Vietnamese Meatballs and Rice Noodles Recipe with a Tangy-Sweet Sauce, Carrot-Daikon Pickles and Fresh Herbs
Our Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe will make you a delicious Vietnamese-style rice noodle bowl. Mouthwatering tender meatballs are doused in a delightfully tangy sweet sauce, sprinkled with crispy fried shallots, and served with a carrot and daikon quick pickle, crunchy cucumber, and fresh aromatic herbs.
Now while my Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe might be inspired by the Hanoi specialty, bún chả, with which it shares a few elements, the presentation of the dish as a single bowl of noodles with toppings, which these days we tend to translate into English as a ‘rice noodle bowl’, is more akin to some Vietnamese dishes from other parts of Vietnam.
There’s the Central Vietnam cousin, bún thịt nướng (char-grilled pork skewers on rice noodles or ‘bun’) and a Southern relation, bún bò Nam Bộ (stir-fried beef atop rice noodles, sprinkled with crispy fried shallots; ‘Nam Bộ’ means Southern Vietnam), though neither are meatballs.
‘Xíu mại’ are ‘meatballs’ in Vietnamese, although Vietnamese xíu mại are quite different in flavour to my meatballs, which look and taste more like the bún chả pork patties. In fact, Vietnamese xíu mại more closely resemble Southern Italian meatballs doused in a tomato sauce.
In the Mekong Delta in the far south of Vietnam, which has a sizeable Khmer population, there’s a popular dish called bánh tằm xíu mại. ‘Bánh tằm’ are ‘silk worm noodles’, as their shape vaguely resembles silk worms, and the noodles are typically topped with meatballs, cucumber, daikon and carrot, fresh herbs, and crispy fried onions.
One major difference: the cold noodles are often doused in a sauce made of coconut cream and fish sauce. Remove the meatballs, add chopped-up fried spring rolls, and you have the Cambodia dish we call banh sung, which is more like a rice noodle salad (I’ll be sharing a recipe for this next week), which, in turn, is similar to a Vietnamese dish called bún chả giò.
(And to make sense of all these culinary connections, you’ll have to wait for our Cambodian cookbook and culinary history to be published. If you’re in a hurry to know, come help us along by supporting the project with a donation on Patreon.)
So why the confusion with bún chả and what is bún chả exactly? One of the best known Hanoi street food specialties, bún chả is a lunch-time favourite amongst locals. It was our favourite Hanoi street food dish when we lived in the Vietnamese capital, where we ate bún chả several times a week.
Pork belly and pork patties (not meatballs) are barbecued over charcoal on a clay brazier or portable grill out the front of Hanoi eateries, so you often smell the porky aromas and spot the plumes of smoke before you see the bún chả shop.
Our favourite bún chả cook and her husband set up their small burner on a footpath a few blocks from us, and spread out tiny plastic tables and stools beside their cooking space every morning and were gone by noon. If you wandered by you wouldn’t have even known they’d been there.
The pork belly and patties are served in bowls of the tangy-sweet sauce. Sometimes the bowls are small to medium-sized and the sauce is portioned somewhere between a condiment and broth, at other times the patties and pork belly are swimming in a big bowl of sweet and sour soup.
Bowls of fresh rice vermicelli and perfumed herbs and greens are typically served on the side or at the centre of the table, sometimes with a plate of fried spring rolls or nem rán. Our favourite cook would deliver these to our table automatically. At other spots, you could ask.
So how is bún chả eaten? The first time we tried the dish, it was on a private culinary tour and our guide said anything goes essentially. Some Vietnamese friends use chopsticks to transfer the noodles and herbs to the bowl, immersing them in the sweet porky soup before picking up a bit of everything.
Others lay a piece of lettuce on a plate or in one hand, use the chopsticks to pile on some noodles, a pork patty or piece of belly, a little daikon and carrot, and fresh herbs, roll it all up tight, and use fingers to dip the package into the tangy-sweet sauce before trying to fit it all into their mouths. I like both methods.
My Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe may not make you a bún chả Hanoi with smoky grilled pork belly and patties (although you could grill the meatballs even though I fry them for convenience), and if you want a tangy-sweet soup you’re going to have to dilute my sauce, which is essentially a concentrated bún chả.
But my rice noodle bowl is convenient and portable. I take it out onto our balcony for lunch, and pluck some basil, coriander and dill directly from our herb garden… and dream of the day we’ll be able to get back to Hanoi again and sit on the streets tuck into bún chả for lunch.
Just a few tips to making my Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe.
Tips to Making this Vietnamese Meatballs and Rice Noodles Recipe
I only have a few tips to making my Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe. Make the quick pickle of carrot and daikon first and refrigerate it until needed, then make the tangy-sweet sauce so that the flavours meld together.
I use a crinkly vegetable grater to shred my carrot and daikon quick pickle, which you’ll also see us calling a Southeast Asian slaw or Asian slaw on the site, as it’s an ubiquitous side right across the region in the same way that coleslaw is.
I buy the little graters from the markets for $1 each and they last forever (I gift them to foodie friends and clients). They look like this small hand-held vegetable peeler with a crinkly or wavy blade, however, if you search for one of those on Amazon you’ll end up with this crinkle cutter, which is different.
What you will find on Amazon are serrated julienne peelers, which are a bit same same but different, as we say here. While they will do the job, this is what you want. An old-fashioned box grater or food processor with shredding attachment will also do the trick.
When it comes to the vinegar for both the quick pickle and the sauce, look for Vietnamese white vinegar (distilled vinegar made from sticky rice), rice vinegar or rice wine vinegar. I’ll tell you more about Southeast Asian vinegars and fish sauces in a future post.
The carrot-daikon quick pickle will be good in the jar in the fridge for a few days, so only take out what you need, drain that over a strainer, and make sure the remaining carrot and daikon are immersed in the liquid.
My tangy-sweet sauce is essentially a concentrated version of the classic bún chả dipping sauce called nước mắm chấm or simply nước chấm – nước mắm is fish sauce – but without the finely chopped red chillies. The classic nước chấm consists of Vietnamese fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, sugar, garlic cloves and finely chopped birds eye chillies or long red chillies. Either are fine depending on how much heat you like.
You can certainly add the chopped chillies. I prefer to include chillies. But I thought I’d skip them for this recipe as the sauce is more concentrated and it’s being spooned over the meatballs so you will feel the heat more in those mouthfuls of meatballs. I’ve opted for slices of fresh mild long red chillies instead, but do as you like.
I use artisanal fish sauces I bought in Vietnam, but our American friends recommend the Vietnamese-American brand Red Boat Fish Sauce, which isn’t available here in Southeast Asia but I hear it’s good.
Make sure to test the meatball seasoning before you fry all your meatballs. Pop a small teaspoon of pork mixture rolled into a mini meatball into the microwave or a small frying pan, then adjust the seasoning, spices or herbs to suit your palate.
I recommend using long tongs to transfer the meatballs to the wok or pan to position them to ensure they’re not touching so they’re fry more evenly. Turn the meatballs a few times until all sides are golden-brown, then transfer them to a clean tray. You will probably have to fry them in two batches.
Once the meatballs are done, cover them in foil, and slide them into the oven to keep them warm while you prepare the noodles. Follow the instructions on the packet of your dried rice vermicelli noodles: some call for boiling the noodles while others only require soaking.
I use Sa Đéc Rice Vermicelli from the Mekong Delta and they suggest either soaking in water for 3-5 minutes or boiling for 3-4 minutes. Whichever option I choose, the packet suggests rinsing under cold water and draining, which I also recommend you do. Use a fine mesh strainer to allow the noodles to drain well.
Distribute the noodles between bowls; top with meatballs, spoon the sauce over them and sprinkle with crispy fried shallots; garnish with slices of cucumber and red chillies, the carrot and daikon quick pickle, and fresh herbs. Serve with wedges of limes, which add even more zing.
Vietnamese Meatballs and Rice Noodles Recipe with Tangy-Sweet Sauce and Fresh Herbs
- 100 g sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 200 ml rice vinegar
- 200 g carrot - peeled and grated
- 200 g daikon - peeled and grated
- 150 g sugar
- 50 ml fish sauce
- 50 ml rice vinegar
- 50 ml lime juice
- 2 cloves garlic - peeled and minced
- 4 tbsp soybean oil or other neutral cooking oil
- 60 g onion - finely diced
- 1 garlic clove - minced
- 1 slice white bread
- 400 g minced pork
- 1 clove garlic - minced
- 1 small knob fresh ginger - peeled and minced
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- ½ tsp white pepper
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp mixed fresh herbs - basil, mint, dill, and coriander, very finely chopped
- 400 g dried rice vermicelli noodles (bun) - 100g per person
- 1 tbsp crispy fried shallots
- 1 cucumber - sliced
- 1 long red chilli - sliced
- 2 tbsp fresh mixed herbs - basil, mint, dill, coriander (cilantro)
- 1 lime - cut into wedges for squeezing over dish
- In a large jar with lid, dissolve the caster sugar in a little boiling water, add the salt, rice vinegar, carrot and daikon, stir it all around, making sure the vegetables are covered, pop the lid on, and refrigerate.
- Make the sauce on the stove-top in a small saucepan over low heat by stirring the sugar, fish sauce, rice vinegar, and lime juice until the sugar has dissolved. Pour into a bowl and set aside to allow the flavours to meld together.
- In a frying pan over medium-high, heat one tablespoon of oil until shimmering, fry the finely diced onion until soft, add the minced garlic, combine and fry for a minute until fragrant, then transfer to a small bowl and set aside to cool.
- In a shallow dish, soak the slice of bread in enough water so it’s covered, then in a mixing bowl, combine the onion and garlic, ground pork, minced ginger, fish sauce, white pepper, sugar, soaked bread (excess water squeezed out), and finely chopped fresh herbs.
- Roll a teaspoon of the pork mixture into a small meatball and microwave or fry until cooked to taste and, if needed, adjust the seasoning to suit your palate. Use a tablespoon to scoop out a heaped spoonful of pork mixture and roll it between your two hands a few times to roughly form a 5cm-diameter ball. Set it down on a tray and repeat. You should end up with around 16 meatballs.
- In a wok or pan, heat three tablespoons of oil over medium heat under shimmering. Using tongs, transfer the meatballs to the pan so they’re not touching and shallow-fry, turning occasionally, until all sides are golden-brown, then transfer to a clean tray. You may have to fry them in two batches. Transfer the tray of meatballs, covered in foil, to a warm oven while you make the noodles.
- Prepare the noodles by following the instructions on the packe: some call for boiling the noodles while others only require soaking. Transfer to a fine mesh strainer and allow to drain well.
- Distribute the noodles between bowls; top with meatballs, spoon the sauce over them and sprinkle with crispy fried shallots; garnish with slices of cucumber and red chillies, the carrot and daikon quick pickle, and fresh herbs. Serve with wedges of limes, which add even more zing.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make our Vietnamese meatballs and rice noodles recipe as we’d love to hear how it turns out for you.