Within a week of my stay in Hanoi and I’ve happily devoured Bun Cha three times now. Every day I’ve had to remind myself “Jimmy, you need to try something new”. A Canadian woman staying in my hostel and teaching in Hanoi says that for her the distinct smell of durian reminds her of Hanoi. For me though, I think it’s the smell of pork grilling in the morning, the star of the Bun Cha show is what Hanoi is about. The best that I’ve had so far is at Dac Kim Bun Cha, just northwest of Hanoi’s most famous lake, Hoan Kiem Lake. Food like this should come with a warning sign. One bowl and you’ll become instantly addicted.
Bun cha is the quintessential Hanoi dish made from pork cooked two ways: grilled pork patties and pork belly. The plump nugget like patties are shaped from a mixture of pork mince, shallots, garlic, sugar and fish sauce and the pork belly strips resemble thick cuts of streaky bacon. If you are out and about mid morning then you are guaranteed to smell the smokey scent of pork BBQ’ing over coals on the footpaths prior to a roaring lunch trade. The cuts of pork are jammed in between wire mesh grilles and continually rotated until they are caramelized. Most of the street food is cooked this way as though to lure those passing by. It’s always tempting to stop and think whether or not to stop and plant your backside onto the tiny stool and table that are a common fixture at any street food stall.
Arranged on the table are individual plates and bowls containing the the remaining ingredients to add your own finishing touches as though the process of customising and eating bun cha is ritual like. Vermicelli rice noodles are in a separate bowl and on an oversized plate is a medley of lettuce leaves, perilla leaves (also known as Tiet To), coriander and mint. These herbs are not meant to serve as a garnish and should be used liberally. They are central to adding freshness and some zing to the dish possibly somewhat of a psychological excuse in convincing oneself that something healthy is offsetting the fattiness of the grilled pork. After years of my mother hounding me to eat more herbs, I can now see where she was coming from. With quite a lot of meat consumption in Vietnam, fresh herbs make for a good palate cleanser.
The pork is served in a bowl of what seems like half soup and dipping sauce mix half filled with pickled vegetables. The acidity aids in cutting through the rich flavours of pigginess as well as being a pleasant lubricator for the herbs and noodles. Unlike most restaurants in Hanoi, a bowl of chilli and garlic is on the side to flavour the soup to your tasting.
Portion sizes are usually generous but I’ve always been a sucker for ordering the sides of spring rolls (nem rang). Unlike the spring rolls with floury pastry that we’re all used to, the ones served in Hanoi are made from rice paper. Generally filled with crab, mushrooms and noodles, they provide and extra crunchy texture and are guaranteed to complete the job of keeping you full well until dinner time.
Cost: 90,000 dong ($4.50) including spring rolls. These are the higher end of what you’ll pay. You can get them as low as 30,000 dong for a smaller serve without the spring rolls but I have found that the meat patties are drier and the portion sizes are smaller.
Dac Kim Bun Cha
1 Hang Manh