Terry and I were talking the other day about having what might be termed a “food experience.” Those moments when whatever you’re eating rips you out of whatever you’re doing and demands that you focus fully on the sensations of your taste buds. Those times when you completely forget the conversation at hand and go “ohmygosh WHAT IS THIS?! Give me more!” Or maybe “I can’t even think about anything other than what I’m eating right now.” Or possibly, “oh man – this, this is how it’s supposed to have tasted all along!” Food experiences don’t come around every day. They’re rare, and should be spoken of in hushed, reverent tones.
This bun cha? This was one of my five food experiences.
(side note: it’s pronounced like boon cha – food experiences deserve to be correctly pronounced, along with the hushed, reverent tones)
We had this on the street food tour we took in Hanoi, Vietnam. It’s one of Hanoi’s specialties and for me, it was love at first bite. Lightly sweet, a little spicy if you like, and oh so savory and fresh. This one knocks it out of the park. I finally tried making it at home the other day and was a little wary of how it might turn out. I needn’t have been. As far as my taste buds can remember, this is pretty dang close.
A few notes before we get started: 1) Don’t be scared of the fish sauce. We all know it smells horrible, and I had my doubts as I was making the broth. But the flavor comes out just right. 2) It looks a little involved, I know. And while I wouldn’t classify this as a 30-minute ready-in-a-flash dinner, it comes together pretty quickly. It’s basically a broth, some quick-pickled veggies, rice noodles, pork patties, and fresh herbs and spices. You’ve probably got most of the ingredients in your fridge and pantry. Not too intimidating, right? You got this. 3) It calls for a green papaya. I didn’t have a green papaya. I thought I did, but turns out it was a guava I bought. ? I used it anyway and that turned out great. Buuuuut probably most of you don’t have access to a guava either. If that’s the case, I’d say a crisp apple or Asian pear would probably be an acceptable substitute (although obviously not authentic). Really what you’re wanting is a bit of crunch that’s lightly sweet. 4) The pork patties are supposed to be grilled. I don’t have a grill. I do however have a skillet and a stovetop. Those worked just fine. If you’ve got a grill, go crazy here. 5) There’s a bit of marinating time required. Plan ahead.
Now, go forth, and partake!
Makes 4-6 servings
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons minced shallot or the white parts of green onions, minced
- 1 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 cup green papaya (or substitute fruit, see notes above), thinly sliced into bite-sized pieces
- 1 cup carrots, thinly sliced into bite-sized pieces
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 cups water
- rice noodles
- a handful each of fresh basil, mint, and cilantro, torn into bite-sized pieces
- minced garlic
- minced chilis
- To make the pork patties, combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Set aside in the fridge for at least a half an hour, or up to 8 hours. While that's marinating, make the pickled vegetables.
- For the pickled vegetables, mix the green papaya, carrots, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside for fifteen minutes. After that, rinse the mixture thoroughly and lightly squeeze out any excess liquid. Return the mixture to the bowl and add the sugar and rice vinegar. Set aside for an hour for them to absorb the flavor.
- When you're ready to eat, form the pork into two-inch patties. Grill them, or alternatively, use a heavy-bottomed pan over your stove's medium heat to cook a few patties at a time (be sure not to overcrowd the pan). Flip them over when browned. They're cooked through when the patties feel firm when poked with your spatula, or when no pink is left when cut open.
- While those are cooking, make the broth by combining all ingredients in a small pot and cook over medium-low heat until the sugar is dissolved.
- Cook your rice noodles. Here's the easiest way to do that: boil enough water to cover your noodles. As soon as it's boiling, turn the heat off. Add the noodles. Cook for 3-7 minutes, just until the noodles are soft. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water. Keep them fresh by keeping them moist. For instance, dump the whole thing onto a clean, damp cloth and cover with the other end of the cloth.
- You're ready to eat! Assemble the dish in individual bowls. Each portion should have a small portion of broth - you hardly need any of this at all. In fact, think of it less as a broth and more of a dipping sauce. You don't really want to be slurping this broth up in a spoon, you just want it coating the rest of the food. To the broth, add some rice noodles, a few pork patties, some of the pickled veggies, some herbs, garlic, and chilis to taste. Voila!
Honestly, this is probably easiest to eat with chopsticks. If that's not your thing, I'd probably grab a fork. But a spoon's good too. Don't skip the mint. Trust me on this.