In 1960, Vu Bang dedicated an entire chapter of Hanoi Delicacies to the town’s special relationship with bun (pronounced “boon!”) a noodle the world at-large likely knew nothing about.
“This is one dish that truly belongs to Hanoi,” he wrote in his seminal book on cuisine in the capital. “I can't imagine a single Vietnamese has ever passed up, much less disliked, a meal based in bun.”
The oft-employed translation “rice vermicelli” fails to impart the versatility of this dynamic noodle which you may find swimming in snail soup, holding together spring rolls or hiding (semi-fermented) below piles of grilled meat and herbs.
At one point, wise Hanoi cooks chopped Tet leftovers into an attractive mélange for a final feast they called bun thang.
Bun is all things to all people in Vietnam, but the world knows it best as bun cha.
In the early 20th century, Bang tells us peddlers from Hanoi’s outskirts dragged shoulder poles into the Old Quarter to set up portable barbeque stands.
Vu Bang said the aroma of pork grilling over tiny charcoal fires rapped at every door in the neighborhood, drawing men out into the street to squat around the vendors awaiting piles of bun quivering on banana leaves accompanied by lettuce, cilantro and most importantly: a bowl of grilled pork (cha in this instance) swimming in fish sauce.
In the myriad efforts to draw the men home, home cooks produced failure piles of pink meatballs and charred belly slices. To save face, some generated rumors that the street cooks were sneakily insulating the pork with dog fat.
After tireless taste tests, Bang concluded that the trick lay in slow-grilling the meat between thin bamboo sticks over small charcoal fires fanned in tin biscuit boxes.
Bang frequented a spot in an alley off Dong Xuan market that still draws bun cha junkies today. But the dish remains remarkable only insofar as they serve their meat with fresh chapa leaves - a rare herb once believed to assuage bronchitis and asthma.
“There isn't an outstanding bun cha stall in Hanoi,” Bang concluded back in the 60’s. “Not because they aren’t doing a great job, but indeed because everyone is nearly equally good.”
For Bang, it was all about the method.
Chef Nguyen Phuong Hai, an expert on traditional Hanoi cuisine, confirmed that the technique Bang describes once reigned in the capital.
“You take cha off the bamboo sticks, toss it in the sauce and start eating,” he said. “A nice bun cha must be rich with the smell of pork, fish sauce, spring onions and pepper. The bowl must not be too big, cha must not smell smoky.”
But time and demand have replaced the finicky process with charcoal fires super-charged by electric fans and tended by teenagers who flip their way through stacks of metal screens stuffed with as much meat as possible.
Once finished, they often unceremoniously dump the finished product into a waiting bowl of blended fish sauce.
“Our stall is jammed from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., we can’t keep our guests waiting with those bamboo sticks,” said Tuyet, the owner of a popular 30-year-old stall on Hang Than street.
The bun cha business is, indeed, booming.
Since a brief and seemingly life-changing visit from U.S. President Barack Obama, Bun Cha Huong Lien has expanded its business hours to accommodate throngs of customers hoping to dig into American-sized portions of meat—or simply photograph themselves standing next to the blue plastic stool once graced by the first derriere.
The capital remains divided about whether the Huong Lien merits the hype. Most just patronize the one closest to home.
Bang wrote his chapter on bun cha as a nostalgic spy trapped in Saigon and so he might find it ironic that a Hanoi family maintains his favorite grill technique in alley 173 of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1.
Now in their second generation of ownership, every order at Bun Cha Gio Hanoi gets meticulously grilled between sticks of bamboo just after you order it.