Bún chả is quite a simple dish made from grilled pork and rice noodles but the people in Hanoi go nuts over it. Poet and famous local gourmet Thach Lam (1909 – 1941) enthused:
“A mere whiff of the fabulous grill aroma is enough to raise the poet in anyone. The cloud of blue smoke is remindful of veils of mist hanging over a mountain side. The hissing of a tiny drop of fat dropping into the embers evokes a yearning sigh…“
To this day, bún chả is best enjoyed in the street, from a small vendor’s place, seated on plastic chairs, surrounded by the aromas coming off from the charcoal grill, served up with rice noodles, a herb plate and fish sauce.
I have adapted the recipe for the pork quality we generally get in Europe. It is leaner but therefore also less tasty. In Vietnam, you choose eat shoulder and breast while I would definitely recommend pork belly.
1kg pork belly
180ml fish sauce
1 bunch chives
200ml caramel sauce
200ml nước mắm pha
1 small green papaya
1 small carrot
200g bun rice noodles
1 herb plate including lettuce,cilantro, perilla and Vietnamese coriander
Have your butcher remove the gristle from the pork belly and the rind from 2/3 of the meat and ask him nicely to put the latter through a meat grinder. Cut the remaining piece as thin as possible (1/4 inch or less) across the grain. If you ask nicely, the butcher may do that for you, too.
Peel and finely chop shallots. Wash, shake dry and finely chop chives. Mix these in with the meat, the caramel sauce, the sugar, the mortared pepper and the nước mắm pha in a bowl and let marinate for at least 3 hours.
In the meantime, wash and peel the papaya, cut in half lengthwise removing the seeds. Then cut two strips with ½ inch diameter from the meat and cut these across thinly using a vegetable peeler. Use the remaining papaya to make a papaya salad.
Wash, peel, cut in half and finely slice carrot. Put in a small bowl and marinate for 30 minutes.
Dilute nước mắm pha with 500ml water to make it liquid enough for a spoon and add carrot slices.
Cook rice noodles according to package instructions and drain.
Prepare a charcoal grill.
Prepare the herb plate: Wash herbs and dry on kitchen paper. Use scissors to cut the red shiso leaves in fine strips. Pull the cilantro apart, remove leaves from the remaining herbs, discard the stems, cut into bite-size pieces, if necessary. Wash the salad and pull apart into individual leaves. Wash and chop the chilli.
Remove meat slices from the marinade, and form small balls from the meat mince. Put both on a grill grid and set the grill grid directly over the embers.
Cut the noodles into 1 inch bits, using scissors.
On one plate, arrange the noodles, lettuce leaves, and herbs.
On the other plate, arrange the grilled meat, the fish sauce and one food bowl per person. Everybody helps themselves now, filling their food bowls up to half with the sauce, adding noodles and topping this with lettuce, herbs and chilli to taste.