The Way Rice Should Be: Bún Cha
Wednesday, September 07, 2016 4:28 PM
Three days before we arrived in Hanoi back in May, Anthony Bourdain — author, chef and host of the TV show “Parts Unknown” — posted a photo on Facebook of him and President Obama having dinner together in a tiny noodle shop in Hanoi. So when I arrived in Vietnam, I was determined to find out what they were eating, which turned out to be Hanoi’s famous Bún cha — a mind-blowing rice noodle dish served with caramelized pork, fresh herbs and a sweet dipping broth.
Fortunately, our friend Owen, who manages the Slipway restaurant in Thomaston in the summer and works in a Hanoi restaurant kitchen in the winter, gave us directions to his favorite bún cha stand in Hanoi. As soon as the taxi driver realized where we were going, he decided to drop in for a bite along with us. We knew we were in the right place! Bún cha is a very simple dish, which you can prepare ahead of time if you are planning to have an end-of-summer picnic. This week I’d like to share with you my recipe for this delicious Hanoi favorite.
- Serves 4 people
- 1 bag of rice noodles (8 oz)
For the Pork:
- 1 lb. ground pork or pork belly or both
- 2 Tbsp. caramel sauce ( 1:1 sugar and water see recipe below)
- 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp. oyster sauce
- 1⁄2 Tbsp. fish sauce
- 1⁄4 tsp. black pepper
- 1⁄8 tsp. salt
- 1 glove garlic, minced
- 1 shallot, minced
For the dipping sauce:
- 1 cup fish sauce
- 1 cup sugar
- 6 cup water
- pinch of salt
For the pickles:
- 2 carrots
- 1 kohlrabi
- 11⁄4 tsp. salt
- 3 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
- 1 tsp. sugar
- minced hot pepper and garlic
- handful of basil
- handful of mint
- handful of cilantro
- handful of bean sprouts
- handful of perilla leaves (optional)
Start by making the caramel sauce for the marinade. In a sauce pan, melt 1⁄3 cup sugar over medium heat. You can swirl the pan occasionally, but try not to stir it. Be careful not to walk away because it can burn pretty fast. Once the sugar has completely melted and turns into a dark amber color, stir in 1⁄3 cup hot water until it’s combined. It will splash, so be careful while stirring. Set aside and let it cool. This sauce is what’s going to caramelize the pork when you grill it. It is used in many marinated dishes and you can usually find the sauce in the Vietnamese grocery store or you can also substitute it with honey or molasses (photo 1).
Once the caramel sauce has cooled to room temperature, mix in the remaining ingredients for the pork marinade. Traditionally bún cha is served with both grilled pork belly and grilled pork medallions. If you can find pork belly at your local butcher, I’d encourage you to make the pork belly too. But I wasn’t able to find them this week so I’m only working with the ground pork. Try to get the ones with more fat on so it doesn’t dry out when you grill them. Marinate for at least two to three hours or overnight. (photo 2)
To prepare the pickles, cut the carrots and kohlrabi into thin sticks. Toss them in a teaspoon of salt and let them sit for 30 minutes. This will allow the carrots and kohlrabi to sweat out some water and make the pickles nice and crunchy. Traditionally the pickles are made with carrots and green papaya, but since green papayas are hard to get around here, I’ve found that kohlrabi makes a great substitute as it tastes really similar and has the same texture. (photo 3)
After 30 minutes, rinse and drain the carrots and kohlrabi sticks and mix in the remaining ingredients. You may add in a few dried chili flakes for some extra heat. Keep it in the refrigerator until you need to use it.
To make the dipping sauce, mix together all ingredients for the sauce, bring it to a boil, then remove it from heat and let it cool to room temperature. (photo 4)
To cook the rice noodles, bring 6 cup water to boil in a sauce pan, cook the noodles for 3 minutes, and immediately shock them in ice cold water. Set aside until ready to serve. (photo 5)
Once the pork is marinated, scoop about 1 Tbsp. each of the ground pork and shape them into medallions. Set aside in the refrigerator until it’s ready to grill. Preheat the grill to a high temperature. I’m using a grill pan here but if you have an outdoor grill with charcoal, you should absolutely use that to give it that extra smoky flavor. Grease the grill or the pan with a little oil and grill the medallions for 3 minutes on each side until well cooked. (photo 6)
To serve the dish, in a small bowl ladle the chilled dipping sauce and add the pickled carrots and kohlrabi.
Dunk a few pork in the sauce along with some rice noodles, fresh herbs and minced garlic and hot pepper; make sure you get a bite of everything.
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