A few years ago, Julie and I had a full blown case of travel fever, and we wanted to get away from our jobs, our home (though the mortgage payments stayed with us), our daily lives and travel for six weeks through Southeast Asia. With a few pleas to our employers and some careful planning, we set off for our first taste of extended travel. Given our ambitious desire to ‘see everything’, we arranged our itinerary in advance. The one place we agreed was non-negotiable was Vietnam. Two weeks after crossing the border into Saigon, we made our way by train to Hanoi in the far north. Looking back, we both loved Vietnam, and were rightly stunned into submission as we criss-crossed the beautiful country. But as is normally the case, the food was the best part. Lovers of Vietnamese cuisine for years, in Hanoi we discovered the best dish of the entire trip – the legendary Bun Cha.
While we had not yet experienced bun cha outside of Vietnam, we have come to learn that the dish is replicated in a lot of Vietnamese restaurants around the world, with varying levels of success. Here’s how to do it right. Delicious, sticky, fatty pork, marinated with a lot of fish sauce, scallions, sugar and chili is roasted over a flame until heavily caramelized. A warm dipping sauce is served on the side, much more pungent than the usual nuoc cham. There are separate dishes of bun noodles, lettuce and fresh herbs littering the table. To eat, take some noodles, some herbs, some lettuce and dunk them into the sauce, grabbing some pork slices along the way. The flavor is outrageous. Sweet, smokey, spicy and sour, all in one small bite. Perfection.Complexity-wise, it is miles away from what we have since tried at restaurants.
Last week, Julie had an itch for some Bun Cha, so attempted our first replication at home. Not entirely authentic, but man, was it tasty. I used rice noodles (technically pho noodles), that I cooked by pouring boiling water over them in a bowl and letting them steep for three minutes until soft, draining and rinsing under cold water. The pork was Berkshire pork belly (about 1lb,without the rind) sliced thin and marinated overnight in soy sauce, fish sauce, chilies, honey and scallions. I grilled the pork in a grill pan on high heat for five minutes or so per side, letting the fat melt and the sugars caramelize. The dipping sauce was a combination of fish sauce, chili, rice wine vinegar, garlic, ginger, scallion, sugar and some water to dilute, simply heated until warm and the sugar dissolved.
To assemble, I filled a bowl with the room temperature rice noodles, pork, sauce and a array of chopped romaine lettuce, basil, cilantro and mint. For ease of eating on our couch, we just used one bowl instead of the elaborate dunking method that is used in Vietnam. I must say, I am highly critical of my own cooking, but this was awesome. The fatty pork, the sour fish sauce, the heat from the chili and the lettuce and herbs to provide some crunch and freshness – it was a perfect dish. The only things missing were the hilariously small chairs you sit on at Vietnamese street stalls and the chaos the the streets of Hanoi all around you. There are some things that you cannot simply recreate in a London flat.