It is hard to find someone with greater knowledge of food and culture in Hanoi than writer Thach Lam.
In his famous work, Hanoi - 36 Old Quarters, a rustic Confucian scholar, upon smelling bun cha, or rice noodles with grilled pork patties, during his first visit to the capital, breaks into verse: “In 1000-year-old Thang Long, is it the most precious object?”
Bun cha, served with small, savory, crispy, caramelized pork and thin rice vermicelli on a bed of fresh vegetables and mixed fish sauce, is considered one of Hanoi’s 15 quintessential noodle dishes.
Central to it are the tiny grilled cha vien (pork patties) or cha mieng (fatty pork slices) or both.
Bun cha uses ground pork shaped into a meatball. When meat is thinly sliced or shaped into a ball, it must have a small portion of fat to keep its juices when grilling. Traditionally, pork shoulder is a perfect choice for cooking this dish because it is naturally firm meat and has the ideal proportion of fat.
Well-marinated meat is skewed on a bamboo stick or placed on a barbecue and grilled on charcoal.
The two kinds of cha sometimes arrive on separate plates and are dipped in a mixture of fish sauce, vinegar, chili, and garlic, sometimes with lightly pickled green papaya and carrot.
The smoky, savory caramelized pork pieces are dipped in the sauce and eaten along with the noodles.
The fish sauce mixture plays an important role in blending the tastes and flavors. Making it is considered as an art by itself. For instance, if the pork turns out to be salty, less fish sauce is used, and vice versa.
These are accompanied by a basket of fresh herbs and vegetables whose contents vary from place to place. But the most common are small lettuces, bean spouts, curled shredded morning glory stems, cilantro, and other minty, spicy herbs.
The vegetables and rice vermicelli are arranged in a single plate.
Some chase the vermicelli and meat down with a crunchy piece of lettuce or zesty herb. Others choose the wrap and dip approach, using the lettuce to bundle up some bun, a piece of pork, and some herbs and dunking the package in the broth before biting on it.
The classic accompaniment to bun cha is nem (spring rolls), which are a combination of minced pork, vermicelli, mushrooms, and bean spouts. They are made by being wrapped like an egg roll in rice paper and fried. They can usually be ordered with beer in Hanoi.
Though the origin of bun cha is not clearly known, it has for long been a popular dish that can be found on a traditional shoulder pole at street corners as well as in restaurants around Vietnam and in Vietnamese restaurants abroad.