May 23, 2016, a photo of President Barack Obama holding a bottle of beer, casually enjoying his food in a not-so-fancy restaurant with famous chef Anthony Bourdain became one of the most viewed and searched item on the internet worldwide. That captured the moment of Mr. Obama’s Bun Cha dinner during his 3-day-visit in Vietnam. A busy schedule and for security purpose only allow him to choose only one dish to enjoy out on the Vietnamese street. Out of the countless dishes the diverse Vietnamese cuisine can offer, he chose Bun Cha. So, what does Bun Cha have to attract him?
Bun Cha is a Vietnamese noodle dish that is believed to have originated from Ha Noi. There are still controversies but Ha Noi is likely to be where you can find the best version of Bun Cha in Vietnam. Bun Cha is best to have for lunch or dinner but is not so much a breakfast item. Many foreign guests while on vacation in Ha Noi fall in love with the typical way of eating Bun Cha – in a small restaurant, sitting on the plastic stools with the cook grilling the meat just a few feet away. Eating Bun Cha is not only about tasting a delicious dish but it is also about enjoying a beautiful part of the Hanoian culture.
The term Bun Cha speaks out the main components of the dish: ‘Bun’ means noodles and ‘Cha’ means the grilled meat. Bun Cha is usually served with a plate of white rice noodle separately from a bowl of grilled meat in the dipping sauce. Altogether, these are eaten with some herbs. The ‘Cha’ part is the star of the show with two kinds of grilled meat: Cha Bam & Cha Mieng. Cha Bam are formed patties made from ground pork and Cha Mieng are cuts from pork belly. Both are beautifully seasoned with lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce and other spices. They are then grilled on hot charcoal and served in the dipping sauce. Some people also enjoy Bun Cha with Nem Cua Be (fried crab spring rolls) and although that would be very delicious, it is not authentic. While the meat is the star of the show, the dipping sauce is the genius director that guides everything. The dipping sauce is the mix of fish sauce, chilies, garlic, sugar, lime juice and topped with pickled carrots and young papayas. The herbs part is served separately and it usually includes lettuce, balm, basil, mint, etc. To eat Bun Cha, you put some of the noodles and herbs in the sauce and eat with one piece of grilled meat. It is important to make sure you get a bit of all the components in one bite. It is because it is the best way to enjoy the goodness of Bun Cha – the balance.
There are different reasons ones can fall in love with Bun Cha, both locals and foreigners. It could be the tasty grilled meat, the flavorful sauce or the variety of herbs. However, above all, it is nothing like the balance that these elements create and altogether make Bun Cha such a beautiful experience. If you think about it, all of the components in this dish make perfect sense in term of supporting other components. The herbs are served to cut through the richness of the fatty grilled meat. The noodle is there to help absorb the flavorful sauce and meat. The combination of the tastes and smell are in harmony as well. Within the sauce, the spiciness of chilies and garlic and the saltiness of the fish sauce are balanced out by the sweetness of sugar and the sour of the lime juice. The smell of the meat after being grilled on the charcoal is lifted by the lemongrass, garlic and spice seasonings. Even the color of the dish is a pretty picture. Because there is the dark brown color of the grilled meat, the colorful orange of the carrots and green of the lettuce and herbs are in place. The white color of the rice noodle is in the background, balancing the whole picture.
President Obama finished two servings of Bun Cha that night and bought four to go. He definitely left Huong Lien Bun Cha restaurant with many great thoughts. Among the wonderful hospitality Vietnam has given him during that 3-day-visit, the Bun Cha dinner stood out to be one of his best experiences. Like many other tourists on vacation in Vietnam, the then most powerful man in the world enjoy a country full of excitements and surprises with so much to cherish. Amongst all that, there is one memory he will not forget for a long time: the wonderful Bun Cha experience when beauty is created by keeping it balanced.
Bun Cha can easily be found on many streets of Ha Noi. However, it is difficult to be sure which restaurant to choose to get the best Bun Cha with the best price or to be sure about food safety. Here at Vietnamstay, we offer guests with Hanoi Foodie Tour. Click here for more info and contact us to experience Bun Cha and many other great Ha Noi foods at their best.