by aengelson | February 26th, 2010
So, to stay on the topic of food for a moment, I’d like to put in a good word for bun cha.
I’m usually pretty good about mixing up my lunch routine. But this week I ate bun cha for lunch every day. And I’m still loving it.
I think of bun cha as Hanoi’s emblematic dish. Back in the states, everybody knows the noodle soup pho. And don’t get me wrong, pho is good and all, and I’ve had some amazing bowls of pho–both beef and chicken–in Hanoi.
But bun cha is synonymous with Hanoi for me.
It has it all: The garlicky pork meat patties grilled over a charcoal fire. The pile of sticky white rice noodles. The salty-sweet broth (or is it a sauce?) swimming with the pork and slices of green papaya. The herb basket–filled with fresh cilantro, mint, lettuce, and rau tio to (also known as beefsteak herb or perilla). The accompanying nem (fried spring rolls). Perfection.
To eat the dish, which is sort of cross between a soup and a salad, you grab some noodles with your chopsticks, coat them in the salty sweet sauce, and slurp them up. Pick out a tasty herb of your choice and eat it with a savory pork meatball. Or dip a slice of spring roll in and crunch it up with some lettuce and mint.
I especially like rau tio to, a jagged-leafed purple herb that’s tangy, slightly bitter, and, with a bite of pork absolutely heavenly. And apparently it’s good for you (not surprising, since Vietnamese culture sees food and health completely intertwined). One website says the herb has been use for centuries in Asian medicine as
an antiasthmatic, antibacterial, antidote, antimicrobial, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitussive, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, emollient, expectorant, pectoral, restorative, stomachic and tonic.
Anyway, it sure tastes good.
For those who like it hot, add some of the chopped garlic and chilies on the side or a spoonful or two of nuoc cham, that vinegary chili and garlic sauce that makes your tastebuds stand up and say “Hooooah!”
Part of the joy of bun cha is the ritual–varying the herb and meat and noodle combinations. And then there’s the wafting smoke from the bun cha lady’s grill. And the kid-sized chairs and tables. You can choose to keep your head down in your bowl, if you’re feeling solitary. Or smile and attempt to chat with your fellow lunchmates if you’re feeling sociable (and if they are, too).
My favorite bun cha stand in Hanoi is on Xuan Dieu street, between the World Wide Fund office and the Syrena shopping center. But there are great stands all over the city. Just pick one and dig in.