When President Obama sat down to eat street food in Hanoi in 2016, the dish he devoured together with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, as they perched on flimsy plastic stools across a table crowded with bowls, was bun cha. They definitely looked as if they were enjoying the food, writes Jonathan Gold in The Los Angeles Times -- “bun cha ha noi, a characteristic Hanoi street food dish of squiggly rice noodles, baskets of herbs, and both grilled pork patties and strips of grilled pork shoulder steeped in a small bowl of sweetened fish sauce.” It’s difficult to imagine many other presidential candidates “sitting down on plastic stools to enjoy this sticky, odiferous treat.”
No one seems to know the origin of bun cha, says Dan Q Dao in Saveur. It's important to note that it's lunch-only fare in small Hanoi restaurants, typically offered between 11am and 2pm, “where locals and tourists sit elbow-to-elbow, drawn in by the instantly recognizable and far-reaching smell of the charcoal grill on the sidewalk.” The dish is served, like most Vietnamese dishes, with a plate of fragrant assorted herbs like perilla, mint, coriander, and Thai basil. “You can choose to add them directly into the broth or incorporate them into the building of your bowl … it’s also typical to order an accompanying side of crab or pork spring rolls (nem cua bể or chả giò), which you can slice into your noodles, wrap in larger leaves of herbs, or just eat on the side.”
It comes in three essential components, explains Qui Duc Nguyen in Things Asian: the green (veggies), the white (noodles), and the golden (broth) ...
The veggies: “red leaf lettuce … green leaf lettuce … basil … and mint, and cilantro … the pile of green leaves simply looked like some Amazon jungle.”
The noodles: “these are of the medium-thickness variety, and the whiteness attest to their freshness … .at good bun cha places, the noodles should slide off each other easily.”
The meat: “sweet, succulent bite-size pieces of pork, grilled on charcoal fire … some wrapped in la lot, large, round and crinkled grape leaves with a delicate flavor … some seasoned with garlic, black pepper and the slightest touch of chilly sauce.”
The broth: “just before you are served, the meat is dipped into the broth, which is made of a touch of fish sauce, thinned with a mixture of sweetened vinegar, water and lime … it should be clear, with just a fragile swirl of oil from the grilled meat.”
The delight: “pick up a few strands of noodles, and a few of the green leaves, dip it in the broth … on the way back out, gracefully pick up a slice of the grilled pork and bring it all to your mouth … relish the texture of the raw leaves, the smoothness of the noodle, the sweetness of the meat, and lemony taste of the broth … you're in paradise.”