While visiting Hanoi I was introduced to so many delicious dishes. Once that stood out from the rest was bun cha: Vietnamese Pork Meatballs. It was a life changing experience. Really, it was. During the Christmas holiday in 2017 my family and I took a trip to Vietnam. My daughter is an English teacher there.
On one of our first days she booked us a street food tour with Thanh. Thanh introduced us to many local Vietnamese delights such as: pho, or rice noodles in broth usually with beef, bánh mì, a classic Vietnamese sandwich served on a French baguette, “gỏi cuốn”, fresh spring rolls wrapped in rice paper and stuffed with raw veggies and cooked shrimp, pork, or veggies, and ca phe trung, egg coffee. My favorite among them bun cha: Vietnamese pork meatballs. The word bun means rice noodles, and cha means grilled pork. Some locals will fondly call it Bun Cha Hanoi.
These meatballs are flavor-packed and direct your taste buds in many different directions. Five spice—a traditional Chinese and Vietnamese spice—has a slightly sweet taste due to the star anise, yet also has a warm mouth feel because of the cinnamon and fennel. The fat content of the ground pork, mixed with the five spice, makes for a delicious and well-rounded taste.
Hanoi street food:
On one of our street food stops, Thanh led us through an alley and up a set up of steep wooden steps.
We ended up in a crowded, rectangular room with a balcony at one end. The room was full of picnic-like tables, packed shoulder to shoulder with locals. Everyone hunched over their bun cha bowls eating with gusto. This must be good I thought!
We weren’t the only westerners in the room, but almost. I took my first bite of bun cha and fell in love. The combination of flavors is absolutely amazing. Now if you’re extra hungry, order yourself Bun Cha Gio and you’ll get a fried spring roll, too!
In Hanoi, many local eateries are small, unassuming, and specialize in one or two traditional dishes only.
Throughout our stay we found this out time and time again. If you are ever in Hanoi, and consider yourself an adventurous eater, book a tour with Thanh.
So, what is bun cha exactly?
Well, for me, it is heaven in a bowl! Okay, I’ ll be more specific. Bun cha is a traditional Vietnamese dish of grilled pork meatballs slightly flattened to form patties. If you don’t have a grill, or are in the middle of a northern winter, no worries. You can cook the patties on a skillet and then broil them.
Vietnamese pork meatballs are served with a delicious golden broth, a variety of fresh herbs, greens, and rice noodles. Since the meat falls on the savory side, you definitely want to incorporate some brightness by using cilantro, mint, and lime juice. If bean sprouts are accessible to you, add those for crunch and freshness as well. Besides the flavors of the pork, the fish sauce base in the broth provides umami and really rounds out the recipe.
Vietnamese pork meatballs are served with a delicious golden broth, a variety of fresh herbs, greens, and rice noodles.
After returning home I messaged Thanh for instructions on how to make bun cha. She gave me a brief explanation, so I decided to give it a go. There were a few FB messages going across time zones. I asked questions about proportions, ingredients, etc, just so you know. It was like having my personal culinary consultant.
I think my recipe turned out pretty close to that little upstairs restaurant. Unfortunately Thanh is not here to be my critic, but it does help that my husband and son thought the flavor profile was spot on!
Step by step photos to make bun cha:
- Gather all your ingredients and have them measured, chopped and ready to go. The rice noodles you can make ahead according to the package instructions and then allow them to cool.
- Place the ground pork in a large bowl then add the five spice powder, salt, fish sauce, shallots, garlic and pepper. Mix the thoroughly and allow to marinate for 1 hour.
- Once marinated you can form them into about 1 inch balls and flatten slightly.
- Grill the meatballs about 3 minutes per side until they hit an internal temp of 145° F. You can also cook them in a skillet until they hit 145′ F and then broil them for a nice brown exterior.
- To make the broth slice the kohlrabi thinly then cut into thirds sprinkle with just a pinch of salt and a little rice vinegar and let them rest in a bowl. Place the fish sauce, water, lime juice, brown sugar, rice vinegar, in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil then remove from the heat. I like to use a pyrex pitcher and microwave until it just starts to boil. Pour the broth over the kohlrabi. You can do this step ahead and store in the refrigerator for 1-2 days then heat it up when ready to serve.
- Serve the broth in small serving bowls along with the rice noodles and meatballs. Enjoy!
Some tips to get the full Bun Cha Hanoi experience
Make sure you get a little bit of everything when you take a bite. It might be easiest to use chopsticks and a spoon or a fork and spoon so you can properly maneuver your food. Here’s the method: dunk your spoon into the broth, and using your fork or chopsticks, twirl some vermicelli onto the spoon. Put a meatball and some of the herbs and beansprouts on top, and take a big bite.
To really immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture, consider eating your bun cha hunkered on a small plastic stool! In Hanoi, people eat street food squatting on tiny plastic stools. If you have access to all of the Vietnamese ingredients, do your palate a favor and add all of the condiments presented on the table. That goes for the herbs, beansprouts, fish sauce, chili, and hoisin. You can also mix up a proper Nước chấm, or dipping sauce, to pour over your bun cha. It’s a simple sauce, but it’s like a flavor bomb. The base is simply a salty and tangy fish sauce, sugar, and vinegar. It’s the perfect mix of sweet, salty, and sour.
Frequently asked questions:
- Can I make the meatballs up in advance? Yes, you can take the fully cooked meatballs and store in the refrigerator for 2-3 days and reheat. If you vacuum pack then they will last 6 months in the freezer.
- Can I make the broth up in advance? Yes, you can store the broth in the refrigerator for 1-2 days and reheat when ready to serve.
- How do I store the rice vermicelli noodles? These can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-5 days in an airtight container. They can also be frozen in airtight containers for 1-2 months. Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight.
Last but not least, enjoy this recipe for bun cha: Vietnamese pork meatballs, and share with your friends too! You don’t have to go to Vietnam to enjoy great Vietnamese food. If you want to check out some authentic Vietnamese recipes I have some more to share that you can easily make in your home.
Vietnamese coconut braised pork (Thit Kho Tau) is slow cooked, tender, salty and sweet is one dish you have to try!
During the hot summer months a nice cool Vietnamese Beef Noodle Salad: Pho Tron is very popular.
You have to finish off your meal with a traditional Vietnamese Egg Coffee or ca phe trung (cà phê trứng) is a Hanoi espresso with a sweet meringue like topping.
Bun Cha: Vietnamese Pork Meatballs Recipe
- 1/2 lb rice noodles Prepare according to package instructions, drain and allow to cool.
Accompaniments - greens served on the side:
- 1 cilantro
- 1 mint
- 1 red leaf lettuce
- 1 Thai basil
- Arrange all the greens on a tray.
- In a bowl place ground pork, five spice powder, salt, fish sauce, shallots, garlic, and pepper. Marinate for about one hour, and then form small, 1" meatballs. Flatten them out to form a patty.
- While the pork is marinating, slice the kohlrabi thinly, and place in a shallow glass dish. Each slice of kohlrabi should be cut into 3 wedge shaped pieces. Sprinkle with kosher salt and vinegar, and allow it to sit for about 1 hour.
Cook meatballs/patties in a skillet, on both sides. When finished, transfer them to a baking tray and place them in the oven on broil for about two minutes on each side. (If you want to grill outdoors: Grill them from about 3 minutes per side until they run clear and hit an internal temp 145° F.)
- Prepare the broth by placing fish sauce, water, lime juice, brown sugar and rice vinegar in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil, and remove from heat.
- Divide the broth evenly into 4 separate bowls.
Place the sliced kohlrabi in the broth. You typically eat them by alternating dipping the meatballs, greens and noodles into the broth. It is very refreshing!