Bun Cha – Vietnam’s culinary jewel

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On a recent trip to Vietnam Mr B, Big A and Little Z (husband and two daughters) stopped off in Hanoi for a couple of days before heading south to Hoi An and it was during this stay I discovered a dish known as Bun Cha (pronounced Boon Cha – even the name of it appeals) that will stay with me forever. There have been certain times in my life that I have, often unexpectedly, had a meal that was off the delicious charts and consequently imprinted on my memory. This was one of them.

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We had booked ourselves onto a guided tour of ‘real’ Hanoi with Hanoi Kids – which I cannot recommend more highly if you are planning a visit. The personal tours are conducted by local university students who show you their beloved Hanoi. The hope is that the students can improve their English and you enjoy an original type of tour. The tours are free so it’s a win win for everyone, although it’s only polite to pay for their lunch and drinks and leave a tip at the end (although there is no pressure to leave one).

Van and Nhung (our designated Hanoi Kids for the day) collected us from our hotel in Old Hanoi and after a few minutes discussion on what kind of things we enjoy doing they whisked us off to a few places they thought we should see, both on the tourist trail and the more hidden places.

Despite the tourists who flock to ‘The Temple of Literature’, the site of Vietnam’s first university, the place was breathtakingly calm and serene as recently graduated students wafted around in their stunning ‘ao dai’ – the national dress for Vietnamese women.

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The temple is a place for them to take cherished photographs of themselves in all their finery having completed their studies; their graduation photographs if you will.

IMG_4799We wandered around the large complex taking in our surroundings before heading back to the cool of our transportation and on to the next destination.

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After a morning of soaking up the some of Hanoi’s sites Van and Nhung promised to take us to one of their favourite Bun Cha establishments. New to Bun Cha we were open to their suggestion. Our driver dropped us off by the pavement where we found a collection of little tables with miniature blue stools where local Vietnamese were feasting on Bun Cha.

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We were shown to a table and waited briefly for our meal to arrive. A large tin platter was placed on the small table, which we were huddled around and upon it were six bowls of broth filled with BBQ pork slices and patties. In the middle of the platter where mountainous piles of noodles, fresh herbs, lettuce and bamboo shoots.

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The simplicity of the spread did not reveal the resplendent flavours that came to the fore after the first mouthful. Without exception we were all in culinary nirvana; even Little Z who has not such a developed palate – being 3 yrs old – devoured every mouthful. The atmosphere of eating in a local eatery with traffic and bikes whizzing by only added to the charm. All the tables were filled with locals, not a tourist in sight (apart from us that is).

At £2 a head it is without doubt the best cheapest meal I have ever eaten. If you are in Hanoi do check it out you won’t be disappointed. The address is : Bún Chả 34 Hàng Than, 34 Hàng Than, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi.

The afternoon was spent on foot touring the streets of Old Hanoi,which is no easy feet I tell you. Crossing a road in Hanoi is a tricky business, but with our guides on hand we managed to stay alive to tell the tale.

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Some like to take a more leisured approach to daily life!!

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We ambled around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is the heart of Hanoi. Within the frenetic metropolis the lake offers peaceful walks in the relative shade of the tree lined walkways. We visited the temple in the lake and heard about the legend of the giant tortoise and the sword.

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The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering down the laberinth of narrow roads that make up Old hanoi, stopping off at temples and markets and of course sampling the famous egg coffee at Cafe Giang, a coffeehouse that’s been around for decades. (39 Nguyen Huu Haan) and is delightfully charming hidden down a dark little alleyway (we would never have found it without Hanoi Kids), over two floors scatted with it’s miniature tables and wooden stools, much to Mr B’s chagrin, as he is a good six foot tall. The girls loved it however as the seating arrangements in Hanoi were perfect for them.

So for those who have no immediate trips to Hanoi planned, fear not, here is the simple but truly delicious Bun Cha recipe that you can make at home. Don’t be put off by the length of ingredients, it is far more straightforward than it may appear and if you don’t have all the herbs just use one or two of those listed. Equally if you find green papaya too hard to source just add carrot. Ideally marinate the pork mince and slices and leave in the fridge overnight if you have time/remember. Failing that a couple of hours marinating will also be sufficient.

Bun Cha

Serves 4

Pork Patties and Slices

300g pork shoulder

300g pork mince

6 shallots, minced

6 garlic cloves, minced

2 spring onions, very finely chopped

1 tsp sugar

2 tsp fish sauce

2 tsp dark soy sauce

2 tsp salt

2 tsp honey

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

To Serve

1 handful of mint leaves

1 handful of coriander leaves

1 handful of Thai Basil

1 large handful of bean sprouts

1 large handful of lettuce leaves

500g rice vermicelli noodles, cooked

Side of Pickles

quarter of a green papaya, thinly sliced

1 large carrot, sliced into carrot flowers (or simply sliced)

2 tsp salt

1 tbsp caster sugar

2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

Dipping Sauce

2 tbsp fish sauce

2 tbsp caster sugar

2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

250 ml water

1 chilli, sliced thinly

2 garlic cloves, diced finely

juice of half a lime

1. In a mixing bowl combine the pork mince with HALF of all the ingredients in the ‘Pork Patties and Slices’ section. Thinly slice the pork shoulder to around 1/2 cm depth, 5cm length x 4cm width approximately. Place in a separate bowl with the other HALF of the remaining ingredients.  Cover both bowls and leave in the fridge to marinate overnight or for a couple of hours.

2. Next prepare the side of pickles by slicing the carrots, or if you are feeling ambitious make little carrot flowers. Simply peel the carrots and then make V cuts lengthways, without going all the way through the carrot. This way when you slice the carrot horizontally little carrot flowers have been formed. Peel and slice the green papaya and then put both the vegetables into a bowl with the salt. Set aside for 10 minutes before rinsing off the salt in water. Drain thoroughly and then place in a new bowl with the sugar and the rice vinegar. Leave to rest for an hour. This will allow the vegetables to absorb the sugary vinegar flavour.

3. Prepare the dipping sauce by mixing all the ingredients together. Leave to one side.

4. Cook the rice vermicelli according to the packet – few minutes normally in boiling water. Drain under cold water and leave to one side.

5. After marinating the pork, make small patties using your hands, similar to how you would make meatballs. It is easiest to form the balls if your hands have a little oil on them. Once you have formed a ball, gently flatten the pattie so that it is easier to handle when cooking.

6. If you want to be really authentic then you could BBQ the meats but as it is not always BBQ weather here in the UK, I find the oven grill works equally well. Preheat the oven grill to 180 degrees (I use fan oven). Place the slices and patties on the grill rack and grill for just under 10 minutes (or until nicely turned brown) before turning and grilling for a further 10 minutes.

To serve: 

It’s a great dish for people to help themselves so place the herbs/lettuce/bean sprouts, dipping sauce, side of pickles and noodles in separate bowls. To heat up the noodles simple pour boiling water over them and drain them thoroughly! Then place the meat on a separate plate. Ideally serve in small little round bowls like those served in Hanoi (see photo above). My bowls are a little too large really so aim for a small bowl if possible. Guests pour a little dipping sauce in their bowl followed by a couple of slices of pork and a couple of pork patties and  pickles. Then you dip a bit of vermicelli and fresh herbs/lettuce/bean sprouts into the bowl and then eat. The flavours and textures will sing to you and you will be finishing off bowls of the dish before you know it. If you run out of dipping sauce it is easy to prepare a fresh batch. Both my hosts in Hanoi did not finish off the sauce as it is sweet, although I couldn’t resist finishing off every last mouthful.


Cau Lau – Hoi An Special Noodles with Marinated Pork

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This Vietnamese pork and noodle dish is wonderfully fragrant and tasty and very straightforward to put together. It is known as Cau Lau in Vietnam and is a speciality of the world heritage town of Hoi An. Cau Lau is a noodle that is made from rice and water – nothing new there I hear you say – but wait – the water is supposedly from a well in Hoi An. Into the collected well water the locals place the ash of the La Gai Leaf, which they burn. The water and ash are then left over night to rest and then it is this water that is then used to make the noodles, which gives them a light brown hue. As they are tricky to come by in London, I have replaced them with the rice ribbon noodles, but frankly you can use whichever noodle you have to hand.

So this is what you need:

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The only ingredient absent from this photo is ‘sweet basil’, which I managed to source before devouring the meal. It is not a absolutely necessary but definitely adds a delicate fragrant flavour if you are able to get hold of some.

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Place the chilli, turmeric, garlic and lemongrass into a mortar, as above and give it a good grind with your pestle. If you don’t have one simply use a bowl and the end of a rolling pin, works wonders!

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Then add the honey, soy sauce, five spice powder, salt and pepper to taste and you will end up with a marinade to pour over your pork loin.

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Keep the fat on the pork loin and cut into 6 pieces. Using your hands cover and mix the marinade over all the pieces and then leave the meat to marinade in your fridge for ideally a few hours or even overnight if you can.

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In a large, slightly deep, pan pour in some oil and bronze each piece of pork on both sides.

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Then add the marinade along with enough water to just cover the pork. Simmer and cover for around 45 minutes, by which time the pork will be tender and the sauce will have reduced by around half.

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Before serving remove the fat from the pork and discard and finely slice the pork. Follow the instructions for the noodles. For ribbon rice noodles I simmered them for around 5-7 minutes in boiling water and then strained them and ran them under cold water for a second. Whilst the rice noodles are cooking place a little oil in a pan and when it is hot add a handful of uncooked shrimp chips for 10 seconds, by which time they will puff up and curl.

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When serving place a good helping of noodles into a bowl followed by the sliced pork loin on top. Ladle a generous spoonful or two of the remaining marinade/sauce on top followed by a small handful of bean sprouts, coriander and sweet basil on the side. Lastly add the shrimp chips and a slice of lime. Serve hot and enjoy.

Cau Lau- Hoi An Special Noodles with Marinated Pork

Adapted from The Green Bamboo Cooking School recipe in Hoi An

serves 4

800g pork loin, cut into 6 pieces

small handful of bean sprouts per serving

small handful of uncooked prawn chips per serving

small handful of fresh coriander and sweet basil per serving

 1 packet of white rice ribbon noodles (see photo)

1 lime, quartered

Marinade

5 pieces of garlic, finely sliced

1 tsp ground turmeric

 2 lemongrass, finely chopped

2 chillies, finely chopped (remove seeds if you prefer less of a kick!)

2 tbsp of five spice powder

5 tbsp light soy sauce

2 tbsp honey

salt and pepper to taste

1. Using a pestle and mortar, or bowl and end of a rolling pin, crush the lemongrass, chilli, garlic and turmeric for a few minutes. Once the ingredients have broken down add the five spice powder, soy sauce and honey.

2. Place the pieces of pork loin (with fat on) in a bowl and cover with the marinade using your hands. Place cling film over the bowl and place in the fridge for at least an hour – you could leave over night if you have time.

3. Using a fairly deep pan, heat up a little oil and bronze both sides of the pork loin. Then pour in the marinade and add enough water to the pan so that the pork loins are just covered. Simmer for 45 minutes at which point the sauce will have reduced by almost a half and the pork loin will be tender.

4. When the pork is cooking, in a separate pan add some oil and when it is hot place a small handful of uncooked shrimp chips into the oil and cook for 10-15 seconds, by which time the chips will have puffed up and lightened in colour. They burn really quickly so don’t take your eyes off them during this part. Place to one side on some kitchen roll. Repeat until you have enough to put a few on each serving.

5. Heat up some boiling water and add the rice noodles for the time specified on the packet – which is usually around 5-7 minutes. Strain and run under a cold tap briefly and separate into each bowl.

6. Using a spatula take the pork loin out of the sauce, remove the fat and slice thinly. Place the pork slices onto the noodles and add a ladle of the sauce on top of the pork and noodles. Add a small handful of bean sprouts, coriander, sweet basil and shrimp chips to the bowl along with a wedge of fresh lime.


Cold Rice Noodles with Peanut-Lime Chicken

The past week or so has been very memorable here in the UK. The Olympics kicked off to an outstanding opening ceremony last friday, which made me laugh and marvel in equal measure. Ok, I’m biased, but I thought that it’s quirky, eccentric nature pretty much summed up us Brits. No amount of money spent on an opening ceremony, past or future, can trump the fact that Her Majesty gamely played herself with Mr Bond as part of the ceremony itself. How cool and even the non royalists out there must have had a sneeky smile on their faces. As for Mr Bean – what a great touch to include him as part of the ceremony; he was definitely one of the highlights.  It was fun, original and gamely humorous and had all of us glued to the TV screen for over three hours, wondering what Danny Boyle was going to bring out of the hat next. I think it is safe to say he is a ‘slam dunk’ for a knighthood in the coming months.

Since the Games begun I have been glued to the TV watching the swimming in particular. Mike Phelps gaining his 19th Olympic medal making him the greatest winner the Olympics has ever seen -truly remarkable. Also the spectacular performance of China’s Ye Shiwen, who, at 16 years of age, wins gold in the women’s individual medley.  It’s addictive viewing watching the world’s best athletes compete in such a wide variety of sports.  I’m going to see the men’s beach volleyball soon, which should be fun and a little surreal to watch in central London.

We’ve had some good sunny days recently, which always inspire me to cook fragrant Asian dishes that are not too heavy. This recipe I stumbled across really recently and it caught my attention as it was served cold and could almost be classed as an Asian noodle salad, of sorts. I’ve cooked it a few times already and I have to admit it’s really good. My number one fan (Big A – who is 6) gave it a definite 10/10.  It was originally posted in the New York Times, however, I found it on the hugely popular food bloggers site ‘Smitten Kitchen‘. As with all great recipes, Deb Perelman – from Smitten Kitchen, adapted hers from the original and I changed hers a little bit further. For example,  I omitted chilli, as I was feeding it to Big A, Little Z and my father who all don’t eat chilli. That said if I were feeding it to just adults (or chilli loving adults) I would definitely add the chilli (hence it has remained on the list of ingredients), I added only one large cucumber, added baby sweetcorn, slightly more rice noodles.

For the really observant amongst you, you will have noticed that I completely forgot to scatter the crushed roasted peanuts over the dish for all the photos. When I sat down and started eating the meal I remembered but clearly too late for the shots for this blog post !

Cold Rice Noodles with Peanut-Lime Chicken

Sourced from Smitten Kitchen, original recipe from David Tanis whose recipe appeared in The New York Times

Serves 6

Dipping Sauce

6 tbsp Asian fish sauce

6 tbsp brown sugar

12 tbsp lime juice

2 garlic cloves, crushed

small thai red or green chilli,  to taste but optional

Peanut Dressing

3 tbsp Asian fish sauce

3 tbsp rice vinegar

9 tbsp lime juice

3 tbsp of light soy sauce

1 1/2 (one and a half) inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced

6 tbsp natual unsalted peanut butter (if you can’t find this just use regular)

1 tbsp toasted sesame oil

pinch of cayenne

Chicken and Noodle Salad

3 tbsp toasted sesame oil

500g boneless skinless chicken thighs

250g dried rice noodles

1 large cucmber, cut in 1/4 inch half moons

2 carrots, cut in thin julienne

handful of baby sweetcorn, halved

handful of fresh mint and coriander (you could also add Thai basil)

4 spring onions, thinly sliced

handful of roasted peanuts, crushed

lime wedges to serve

1. Begin by making the ‘dipping sauce’. On a low heat, place all the ingredients into a pan and gently stir until the sugar has been properly dissolved – this will only take a few minutes. Place in a small serving bowl and allow to cool.

2. Next you need to make the ‘peanut dressing’. Place all the ingredients into a small food processor and puree all the ingredients so that you are left with a thick creamy sauce. Pour into a serving bowl.

3. In separate large bowl pour approximately half of the dipping sauce and a third of the peanut dressing and stir together. Add the chicken to the mixture and coat thoroughly using your hands. Leave to marinate for at least 15 minutes.

4. Once the chicken is marinated gently heat up a griddle pan and add a little toasted sesame oil and brown the chicken thoroughly on both sides, which will take a few minutes per side. I cook my in batches so that I can be sure that the chicken in properly cooked through. As an alternative you could grill the chicken for 20-25 minutes.

5. When the chicken is cooked, chop into bite sized pieces.

6. To serve there are a few alternatives that you can do –

option 1: Place everything on a large serving platter with the noodles, chicken, vegetables, dressing and marianade all separated out and then your guests/family can help themselves.

or

option 2: Divide the cooked noodles into individual bowls or plates. In a small bowl toss the vegetables with 1 tablespoon of dipping sauce. Place the vegetables and chicken onto each bowl/plate. Place a further 2 teaspoons of dipping sauce and dressing to each helping. Add the herbs, peanuts and spring onions to each bowl and serve.

Note: As an alternative to baby sweetcorn you could add fresh peppers which work equally well.