A Look into The Often-Forgotten Delicacy of Hanoi - Bun Cha

10 May 2018

Speaking of Vietnamese cuisine, one often cites the popularity of Pho and Banh mi, thanks to the Vietnamese immigrant populations all over the world. However, often considered a hidden gem, bun cha is another dish that is widely celebrated and eaten in Vietnam, especially in the northern region. There is no accurate record about the history of bun cha, nobody really knows who created this dish. It’s only known that, from generations to generations, Hanoians are accustomed with bun cha and consider this an indispensable dish in the daily life. Bun cha is indisputably up there with Pho in terms of how popular the dish is among Hanoians.

Bun cha consists of 3 main ingredients: the dipping sauce, grilled meat shaped into various kinds (Cha) and the vermicelli (Bun). A large part of what makes or breaks bun cha is the dipping sauce. The sauce is delicately sour, spicy, salty and sweet at the same time, composed of diluted fish sauce, vinegar or lime juice and sugar, garnished with garlic and chilli for some kick. The sauce also contains some thinly sliced green papaya and carrot or even some bean sprouts.

There are two types of grilled meat (cha): one is cha mieng (sliced grilled meat) and the other one is cha vien (grilled meatball). Usually the cha is made from pork belly so that when the meat is grilled, the fat melts away and makes the cha really tender and flavorful. Cha vien is made from ground pork molded into round pieces that are about ¼ of a palm large, marinated and grilled over a traditional red charcoal stove.

Although it can be eaten at any time of the day, Hanoians often eat bun cha at lunch. Choosing a specific time of the day to enjoy a specific dish is considered one of the unique features of the "culinary arts" of this land. The act of sitting on a plastic chair on the sidewalks, slurping on some soft white vermicelli seems to have become a common sight with the Vietnamese.

Bun cha eaters know no boundaries, from the old to the young, boys and girls, from the office workers elegantly dressed to the sweaty construction workers, they all enjoy this simple dish side by side at lunch. The taste of the barbecued meat is carefully marinated with a little smoke off the charcoal, with vermicelli, many kinds of fresh vegetables, herbs and the sweet and sour sauce. They all combine together to create a perfect overall harmony, which makes it unforgettable after one taste.

Hanoians are also picky about the way they enjoy this simple dish. To enjoy bun cha to the fullest extent, Hanoians often say that you must eat a variety of greens such as lettuce, herbs, tia to etc. with it. Pick up some vermicelli with your chopsticks, dip it in a bowl of sauce filled with barbecued meat, and pick up some vegetables as well. Take a bite, then you can enjoy the harmonious combination of exciting flavors.

It is not difficult to find a good place for bun cha in every street corner of Hanoi. There are some places that most Hanoians would recommend such as Dac Kim on Hang Manh, Sinh Tu on Ta Quang Buu, Duy Diem on Ngoc Khanh, Huong Lien on Le Van Huu, Ngoc Xuan on Thuy Khue, etc.

Writing about this dish, the culinary critics often said that there is an element of subtlety in bun cha which fascinates foreign visitors: the principle of "just enough". Have just enough meat - neither too fatty nor too lean, just enough vegetables, fish sauce and vermicelli for a bite.

Bun cha is special in its own way, not too extravagant but memorable because of its simplicity. Over the many historical ups and downs, bun cha still retains its distinctive flavor, maintaining its position in the national cuisine.

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