Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bún Chả (things are gonna get easier...)

Most Vietnamese, northerners included, will tell you the food gets better as you head south, but the north, including the capital city of Hanoi, is not without its culinary pleasures. And if you only have one meal to eat in Hanoi...let it be bún chả!

At lunchtime, Hanoians squat down to eat at bún chả joints all over the city. These eateries are easily recognized by the flat metal cages of bite-sized pork charred in batches over low charcoal grills (chả), and by the burnt-sweet smell of caramelized meat that lingers over these streetside kitchens. The sweetness is due to the pork's marinade, consisting of fish sauce, garlic, and sugar. As the pork is charred over the fire, the marinade and fat drip into the charcoal, creating a smoke that flavors the meat, and announces the eatery to the neighborhood.
Like many Vietnamese dishes, bún chả is assembled at table. As soon as you sit down, you get a basket of greens (lettuce, bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, mint - the Vietnamese are all about their fresh herbs), and a tangled pile of thin white rice vermicelli (bún) that someone has run through with a pair of scissors (otherwise, the noodles are impossible to pull apart). If you're lucky, some grunting diner will push over the pepper shaker, red chilies, and pickled garlic in white vinegar - otherwise, just reach over and grab them yourself. Then sit and drool while the main bowl is asembled.

In a matter of seconds, you will have before you a bowl of sweet golden broth chock-full of grilled pork, with a few pickled cucumber slices (or chayote, or green papaya) floating near the bottom. Looking at first like a thin, meaty soup, the liquid is really a complex dipping sauce, a well-balanced mixture of fish sauce, sweetened vinegar, water, and lime, infused with some oil from the grilled meat, and normally served luke-warm. 
The first step in eating bún chả is to doctor the soup. Nearly everyone starts with a few shakes of black pepper, and most people slosh in some vinegared garlic. At this point, tastes diverge. My personal style is to squeeze in a little lime, toss in a couple of red chilis, and then grab some greens and lay them in, letting them soften for a moment before eating. Regardless, you then grab some noodles with your chopsticks, dip them in the soup, and scoop 'em up along with whatever they catch in the bowl. Lean your head low over the bowl and shovel them in your mouth. Close your eyes and whimper.

Vietnamese cuisine delights in contrasting textures, and in this regard, bún chả does not disappoint. The greens provide a crunchy counterbalance to the softness of the noodles; and there are usually two types of meat, one fatty and bacony, the other a soft pork patty mixed with shallots and spices. It should be noted that a good bún chả master grills the meat so that it's burnt and crunchy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside - providing yet another contrast. Add to these textures all the savory, burnt, sweet, and spicy flavors, and eating bún chả becomes a complete sensual experience, one that leaves your tastebuds reminiscing after the meal is done.

No matter what kind of day you're having, a bún chả lunch can only leave you singing, in the words of the old soul hit by the Five Stairsteps:

Boo-oon cha, things are gonna get easier
Boo-oon cha, things'll get brighter
Boo-oon cha, things are gonna get easier
Boo-oon cha, things'll be brighter

Some day, yeah
We'll put it together and we'll get it all done
Some day, when your head is much lighter
Some day, yeah
We'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Some day, when the world is much brighter


  1. Now I'm hungry and nothing in the local food court will satisfy. Damn!

    I have to tell you Hal, I feel much more connected to you now than when you were in PA. Maybe you should have blogged about the exotic Pennsylvanians.

    Thanks and as always, keep it coming.

  2. I'm a friend of Chris Meskow's; I told him I enjoyed my visit to Vietnam and he forwarded your blog to me. I'm enjoying it, particularly this about my second favorite dish, bun cha (the best was a delightfully porky bahn mi in Saigon). Anyhoo-- my band covered "Oooh Child"! No footage of it, but here's us at a soundcheck playing "Vehicle." (That's me on lead." -Daryl