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Bun Cha

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Bun cha is a lunchtime only dish, ubiquitous in the north, far rarer in the south. It doesn't sound much -  BBQ minced pork balls in fish sauce with vegetation and cold noodles. Simple - yes. But, miss this dish and you miss out - big time.

I spent years experimenting with different bun cha restaurants in Hanoi until I finally settled on a reliable favourite. In Saigon the last thing I wanted was some poncey southern interpretation of this classic northern dish. Fortunately, I mentioned my dilemma to a Hanoian I bumped into in Saigon. She pointed me in the direction of a busy restaurant called Quan Ho Tay at 20B Tran Cao Van. As with nearly all the best restaurants I have tried in Vietnam, aesthetics are an afterthought. Metal tables, cheap plastic jars filled with condiments and the ice in my drink comes from a huge rectangular block, bought in bulk and hacked at occasionally to procure ice cubes.

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There are a couple of 'secrets' to a good Bun cha, most important is the fish sauce. Learning how to gauge the right amount of sugar, vinegar and nuoc mam (fish sauce) is the tricky bit. The line between fish sauce heaven and a big bowl of crap is a fine one. I like mine a little stronger than Quan Ho Tay offered up, but then that's why there's a pot of vinegar with garlic on the table. The other secret is how the meat is grilled. It needs an extremely hot flame and should be charred on both sides. When it is placed in the bowl small flakes of black char fall off and dot the fish sauce. Standard Bun cha comes with small bites of grilled sliced pork. I never order these as they are normally far too gristly for my delicate waistline.

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In with the fish sauce are a few finely sliced carrots and sliced susu (Sorry, don't know the English for this veggie). The cold noodles should be added a bit at a time to the fish sauce. Oh...and come to think of it... that's one concession Quan Ho Tay has made to soft southern diners. They give you an extra, empty bowl for mixing and eating from... Pathetic... Just stick with the one bowl, save on table clutter and keep the dishwasher happy;)

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The last part of a bun cha lunch is that impressive herb hedge pictured above. There are seven different clippings in among that lot and I don't know the English names of all of them. The stringy one on top is stripped fresh morning glory (rau muong). It gives a great moorish-veggie crunch when eaten in with the meat and the noodles. That is definitely my fave among this pile. There's lettuce (xa lach), basil, (hung cay), a fab purple leaf (tiet to),a green one that's much the same (kinh gioi), a deep green fella often used with fish dishes (giap ca) and a small, strong tasting beast (hung lang). All a bit technical I know - but the waiter very kindly wrote them all down for me - if you know the english names, please post a comment. The sauce is what brings everything together. Personally, I like chopstick or spoonfulls of meat, noodle and herb all in one go. The fish sauce electrifies everything around it.

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Bun cha munchers normally order a sidedish of spring rolls (Cha gio in the south, Nem in the north. Same thing, bit bigger in the north, different name. Confusing). These are filled with a dash of crabmeat, minced pork, garlic, herbs, mushrooms, translucent noodles and seasoning. You dip them in the same fish sauce with the pork balls in. Quan Ho Tay's are pretty good, a sound crunch, but not packed with the sea crab chunks of freshness I look for in a spring roll. But, hey I'm not complaining, I'm just happy to know where I can get a Bun cha fix in this city.

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Lunch for two, including four spring rolls with a couple of iced Vietnamese teas, 30,000VD. Now that's a bargain. View the business card and the menu. Check out the Quan Ho Tay photostream and  Download bun_cha_movie.mov .

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Comments

Thanks to the guy who emailed me with the ice cream recommendation. Not big on desserts, but will have a hunt for you. Cheers

An excellent and mouth watering post.

Pieman, isn't it a freaky coincidence that I just had Cha Gio for lunch today (that, and Pho). I just love cha gio, but it's nothing compared to the one in your pic. Mine was like a teeny weeny springroll.

Good to hear from you fatman. I have just been recommended a restaurant - best cha gio in Saigon... report back soon. Must go and eat.

Good writing! Great observation! Lacking of *recipe* details (I am a sucker for how to duplicate good dishes). Congrats!

Thanks Antran. Where possible I link to recipes elsewhere on the web for other folks interest. If there's no link, it means I didn't find anything, or didn't look hard enough.

[Quote"In with the fish sauce are a few finely sliced carrots and sliced susu (Sorry, don't know the English for this veggie)."] I think susu is papaya(not rippen one) 99% sure ;-)

Papaya - these were my thoughts exactly, but I am assured it isn't. I'm gonna follow this up. I know what susu looks like - I've seen it growing in Tam Dao mountains near Hanoi and in Sapa. But... I'll get back to you. I, and all sources I've queried, could be wrong.

Hung cay is actually considered a "mint."

Tiet To is "purple perilla"

Many thanks Brenda. Since I blogged this I found some great explanations over at Andrea Nguyen's Vietworldkitchen site.


dear
before 1975 "su su" is the name used for chayote.It is mostly used(by northerner) cơked and not raw.Only when i come to USA i read in fơd article that it can be eat raw.I HAVE NEVER try it.
I like all your picture

Thx Phacao. I've been wondering about this veggie for ages. There's more on Chayote at Gourmet Sleuth.

you said that"In with the fish sauce are a few finely sliced carrots and sliced susu".it is not "susu",In Vietnam we call "su hao" and its English name is kohlrabi.and I know another famous address for BUNCHA in Hanoi:at the end of Hang Manh Street or in Mai Hac De Street.i was born and grow up in Hanoi and I like BUN CHA very much!!!I think you can go to those addresses and try on!!!In Hanoi whoever loves buncha knows those addresses.(my English is not very good so if there's something wrong,please reply to me!!!)And I think your article is very excellent!!!

Dear pieman,
I've read your article,well, it is very excellent!in your article you said that "In with the fish sauce are a few finely sliced carrots and sliced susu".it's not susu.Susu is another kind of fruits.in the fish sauce there are some "su hao"(kohlrabi)and another ingredients."Su hao" can be replaced by du du (papaw).they taste similarly.I was born and grow up in Hanoi and I know another addresses famous for Bun Cha.They are at the end of Hang` Manh` Street and in Mai Hac De Street.sorry i've fogotten the exact address.If You need I will check and tell you later.they're easy to find!whoever loves buncha in Hanoi knows those address clearly.sorry my english is not very good so if there's something wrong or you find mistakes,please reply to me.i'm looking forward hearing from you!(^_^)

What is your fav Bun Cha place in Hanoi?
I have tried many myself. Just ate a one at the backside of WEST LAKE half an hour ago. It was good..they still use bamboo to grill
the Cha. They did not have nem though.

20 Ta Hien Street in the old quarter.

Download the Get Stuffed Hanoi guide in the Hanoi category, there's more there.

Also, a woman next to a tree at the upper end of Phung Hung Street was always a fave of mine.

Hi, Pieman. It's interesting that the bun cha resto you went to places carrots with "susu" in the nuoc mam. Here in California/USA, my mom has always had small slices of daikon with the carrots. It soaks up the nuoc mam really well. And, from all the Viet restos I go to here that serve good bun cha, daikon is the norm. By the way, been meaning to ask you if October is a good time to visit Vietnam? :)

does anyone have any info about those vietnamese sandiwches they sell on the street what is in that red sauce they make? what kind of silver dish is that? what else is on the sandiwches? please email me!

Danielle, that must be an American twist. Although it does sound like a good one. I have never seen that in Vietnam and I have eaten an awful lot of bun cha... an awful lot :)

Any time is a good time to visit Vietnam really apart from the tail end of dry season in the south and the wet and winter in the north. However, if I had to recommend any particular time, Oct-Dec would nail it.

A great read & looking forward to the next postings!

i'm going to be in vietnam in december with my husband and 11-year-old twin daughters. we would really love to partake in a full day cooking program. can you recommend any?
thank you,
helene

This comment is on the fish sauce. The white stuff with the shredded carrots are actually dikon raddishes. Shred those with the carrots and they are awesome.

The tia to is purple shiso. Mint (the one you can probably buy at supermarket) is quite similar to hung lang. King gioi is melissa.

Very nice Website. I have visited a few of the Vietnamese resutrants around the country and found the food to be balanced.

I am generally vegetarian and the cook at times has to cook special dish....

We stayed in Hanoi for 3yrs., and all the bun cha places I have tried don't have susu nor daikon, but kohlabri.

Wow, what a good article about Bun Cha. <3
It made me hungry ^___^
Well chosen Pics btw

Hi. It is so interesting. I have read all of the comments. Some are correct, some are wrong. I am Hanoian 100%. My ancestors have lived in Hanoi for more than 30 generations so i am sure that i am correct.
As you said "Susu" is different from "Su Hao" is correct. And in fish sauce. The are sliced carrots and one of this thing: Susu or Su Hao or Papaya. Three of these can be used replace for other. Because in the North of Vietnam some fruits and vegetable in some season is not available. But In fish sauce for "Bun Cha" "Susu" is the best and after that is "Papaya" and the last is "Su Hao".
Hope that you enjoying Vietnamese food
Thanks

yeah
nice presentation about Bun Cha
pics are really cool

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