Bun cha Hanoi is a traditional Vietnamese dish that is so worth getting to know. A delicious combination of flavorful meatballs, rice noodles and a tangy dipping sauce/broth, you’ll immediately love all the flavors and textures.
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The first time I came across bun cha was not eating it but seeing Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama enjoying it on an episode of Parts Unknown. It was one of the few TV shows we watched avidly. I definitely miss it both for the wonderful foods he enjoyed with a range of interesting people, as well as his insights into cultures, both the good and bad.
That particular episode was both an interesting conversation over their meal and the food itself looked delicious. I knew I needed to hunt some down myself.
When I tried it, I could see what all the fuss was about and why it is one of Hanoi’s favorite foods. It’s a wonderful combination of flavorful pork, soft noodles, a simple but delicious dipping sauce and fresh herbs.
Where does bun cha come from?
Bun cha is a specialty of the Hanoi area of Vietnam, but beyond that the origins are a bit vague. In Hanoi, the dish is called just bun cha, while elsewhere it is often called bun cha Hanoi to distinguish it.
“Bun” means rice noodles, and you’ll find a few dishes that combine the noodles with different meat, fish and vegetables. With pork, “cha”, though is a favorite.
You’ll typically see this served as a lunch dish, like another Hanoi favorite pho. It’s the kind of dish you’ll find in many little side-street cafes and stalls.
Variations on the dish
As with many traditional recipes, there are a few variations in the ingredients. But a few things are consistent, like making slightly-sweet pork meatballs flavored with lemongrass, garlic and a little shallot.
Some recipes use some of the same flavorings for pork belly as well, but I’ve kept things a little simpler with just meatballs here. They have plenty flavor, so don’t feel you are missing out.
The dipping sauce is almost like a broth, just without actual stock since it’s on the lighter side. Again, the exact ingredients vary, but most at least have some fish sauce and sugar.
The sauce is a kind of nuoc cham that you will probably see with many other dishes and is easy to make with lots of flavor. You typically add some slices of chili and papaya slices are also common, so I added both here since I can never say no to either.
I’ve drawn on a few recipes for inspiration, particularly this one from Delightful Plate and this recipe from Vicky Pham. I used Vicky Pham’s recipe to make caramel sauce, which I do think is the best option here to add a wonderful flavor to the meatballs, if you are willing to give it a try. Just do be careful, obviously, when the caramel is hot.
You can make the meatballs ahead of time and refrigerate them. The resting time helps the flavors to mingle more, too. Traditionally, the meat is cooked over a charcoal grill and that is the best if you can. But even a griddle pan indoors helps to bring out plenty of delicious flavor.
How do you eat bun cha?
One warning comes with this dish – it can be a bit messy! You traditionally try to take a little of everything to get all the flavors together. So try to pick up some meat, noodles and herbs/lettuce, all dipped in the dipping sauce. With chopsticks, just to make it trickier!
But the mix of flavors and textures is worth the messiness, believe me.
In the South of the country, this dish is sometimes slightly different (and called bun thit nuong) and served all together. In the North, the noodles and herbs are always on the side. Then the meatballs (and pork belly, if included) are served in a small bowl in with the dipping sauce. I typically just put a few in at a time partly for space, but also so they don’t sit too long and disintegrate.
Bun cha has a few components, but each is pretty easy to make and they all come together to make one truly delicious dish. Comforting, packed with flavor and sure to win you over in no time.
Try these other tasty meatball dishes:
- Kofte-style lamb meatballs in a tomato pepper sauce
- Pork meatballs with arugula and lemon
- Thai basil pork meatballs with peanut sauce
- Plus get more Southeast Asian recipes in the archives.
Bun cha Hanoi
For pork meatballs:
- ½ lb ground pork 225g pork mince
- 1 tbsp minced lemongrass
- 1 tsp garlic minced, approx 1 clove
- 1 tsp oyster sauce
- ½ tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp finely diced shallot minced if possible
- 1 tbsp Vietnamese caramel sauce see link above on how to make (or approx ½tbsp brown sugar if not available/not able to make)
For dipping sauce:
- ⅓ cup green papaya ie unripe, or at least as under-ripe as possible, cut in strips (approx 40g)
- ¼ cup water 80ml
- ⅛ tsp salt
- ½ tbsp sugar
- 1 ½ tbsp lime juice
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1 red chili (small, optional)
To serve (all approx)
- 3.33 oz vermicelli rice noodles 95g, ½ packet
- 1 head butter lettuce
- 1 stem mint
- 1 handful cilantro coriander leaves
Forming pork meatballs
- Put all of the ingredients for the pork meatballs in a bowl (pork, lemongrass, garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, shallot and caramel sauce). Mix them all together well, using your hands as needed to ensure everything is well distributed.
- Divide the mixture into approximately 10 pieces and form each into a ball. Flatten slightly and set them all aside on a plate. If you're short on time, set them aside for around 10-15 minutes while you prepare the sauce etc, but ideally, cover and refrigerate them for two hours or so to let the flavors develop. Bring out from the fridge around 30 min before cooking to bring back to room temperature.
For dipping sauce
- Peel the papaya and cut into very thin strips. Mix together the water, salt, sugar, lime and fish sauce until the salt and sugar dissolve. Add the papaya and garlic and stir in gently. Divide between two small bowls, ready for serving. Thinly slice the chili, if using, and add a few slices to each bowl.
- Prepare the noodles according to packet instructions (typically soak in boiling water for around 10 min – ideally while you cook the meatballs so they stay warm). Separate the lettuce leaves and wash well, and wash the herbs. Divide both drained noodles and lettuce/herbs on 2 sets of plates ready to serve.
- Traditionally, the meatballs are cooked over a charcoal grill, but if not possible to grill, I'd recommend a grill pan or if not that, a skillet/frying pan. In all cases, preheat your grill/pan to a medium heat. Cook the meatballs for a few minutes each side, in batches as needed, until the outside is gently caramelized and meat is cooked through. Try to only turn them over once rather than back and forth.
- Serve the warm meatballs along with the dipping sauce, noodles and lettuce/herbs so that you can take some of each, dipped in the sauce, in each mouthful. It can be good to put a couple meatballs in the dipping sauce at a time to help them take on the flavors a little before you eat them, but not be in there so long they disintegrate.
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