The tight timeline for our recent trip Thailand didn’t allow for a trip to Vietnam, which I’m super sad about. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, but I surprised myself while doing research for this challenge: I actually know very little about the cuisine! Aside from Pho and Banh Mi — which I’m obsessed with — I couldn’t name another dish! How embarrassing! In keeping with the spirit of this challenge, Around the World in 12 Plates: Vietnam needed to be all about new food, so I made a call to my experts. Mike and Chelsea are my most intrepid wanderlusting friends (they’re about to embark on the Mongol Rally, you can read about it here), and have travelled Vietnam extensively.
Mike’s immediate culinary proposition was Cao Lau, a famous Hoi An noodle dish with an extra special ingredient: water. I know what you’re thinking: water? Yes, Cao Lau is made with water drawn from the ancient Cham wells found around Hoi An.
While I loved the idea of attempting to recreate such an epic dish, I knew I just wouldn’t be able to remake the magic of impossible-to-get Hoi An water. In the end, I decided to make Bun Cha, a grilled pork and vermicelli noodle dish originating from Hanoi. You might recall a certain bro-date between Obama and Bourdain recently; it’s what they ate! Just like that, we were off to Vietnam in our kitchen, to the land of delicious pork and sour sauce.
Here’s Around the World in 12 Plates: Vietnam
Once I decided to make Bun Cha, then came finding an authentic recipe. While there are tons of solid cookbooks out there I had trouble finding something authentic online; major sources I used in the past like Saveur showcased westernized versions of the dish. They photographed well, but it wasn’t what I wanted. Other food bloggers let me down too with their recipe shortcuts and avoidance of technique. Finally I found Rice ‘n Flour, one of the most popular English-language food blogs in Vietnam. Their recipe for Bun Cha was simple and authentic, and their video made it even easier to understand some of the cooking techniques, like carving the carrots!
Bun cha consists of many delicious elements: ground pork patties, grilled pork belly, cold vermicelli noodles, tangy salad, a pile of fresh herbs and a garlicky sauce. The alimentary elements are all served family style at the table and you assemble the ultimate palate-personalized bowl.The key to the whole dish is the sauce, a tangy mix of fish sauce, sugar, lemon juice, water, minced garlic and as many chillis as you can handle. The pork patties and belly are both grilled on the BBQ (typically over an open flame, Vietnamese streetfood style, but we improvised) after being marinated for hours, making them melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
A note if you want to go and eat this in Vietnam: it’s traditionally a lunchtime food served around noon and only in Hanoi. There’s no late-night eating this dish!
This dish is great for a crowd of people because it makes a bunch of food, and everyone can flavour their own bowls to their taste — i.e. if your dad hates spicy food. Learning about Vietnamese food for the Around The World in 12 Plates: Vietnam challenge has got my wanderlust in overdrive and now I want to go even more. For now, I guess I’ll settle for a freaking delicious bowl of Bun Cha (or 12, I’ve got leftovers for days).
The Around the World in 12 Plates: Vietnam Challengers
Check out all the other delicious Vietnamese dishes made by my fellow culinary adventurers.