My latest contribution to Discovery, the in-flight magazine for Cathay Pacific, is currently out now on all Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon flights. This month’s foodie feature is the classic Vietnamese dish called bun cha, consisting of grilled pork meatballs served with an abundance of fresh herbs on a bed of vermicelli noodles. A Vietnamese dipping sauce, called nouc cham, is essential to this dish to dress the noodles and to add a salty and sour element – a flavour combination which is essential to many Vietnamese dishes. It’s a noodle salad which is bold, fresh and full of flavour.
Bun cha is a popular street food dish in Vietnam and it is easy to recognise the stands selling this dish by the mouthwatering smell of flame-grilled meat. Street food vendors and restaurants will typically serve this dish with a few fried spring rolls (egg rolls) for some additional texture.
This is a dish which I love to make during the warm summer months when the weather is more suited to a light and refreshing salad. However, I often find myself making this even during the bleakest of winter when the bold colours and flavours of this dish are enough to warm the soul. It also happens to be a dish which both my husband and son love to eat. In fact, my son happily eats these meatballs with plain steamed rice and fresh carrot sticks.
I also have fond memories eating this dish as a child, something which my mother often made on the weekends and when we had friends over for a meal. Sometimes she would use pork, at other times she would use beef. Although she never added fresh herbs to her meatballs, they were always fragrant with sesame oil and lemongrass. But as is the case for many traditional recipes, so many variations exist.
This is a recipe which I love because it uses ingredients which I always have in the fridge and pantry, although a special trip to the Asian grocer is sometimes necessary for herbs such as perilla, coriander and mint. In summer, though, I plant these herbs on our balcony so that I can make noodle salads like this one without too much effort.
If you are not travelling this month, you can still read about this dish in Discovery by downloading a digital copy for free on the iPad at this link. And if you’re not sure how to assemble the dish, here’s an idea:
- For the pork meatballs
- 500 g (1 lb) minced pork
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon caster sugar
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- 1 tablespoon runny honey
- 2-3 thin spring onions, finely sliced
- 1-2 sprigs coriander (cilantro), finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- For the dipping sauce
- 2 tablespoons caster sugar
- juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 4-6 tablespoons water (to taste)
- 1 garlic, finely chopped
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped (optional)
- For the noodle salad
- 300 g (11 oz) dried vermicelli noodles, cooked according to packet instructions and left to cool
- iceberg lettuce or other salad leaves, roughly torn
- 1-2 small carrots, finely shredded
- coriander (cilantro)
- Thai basil
- perilla leaves
- To make the meatballs, mix together the minced pork, fish sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, honey, spring onions, coriander (cilantro) and garlic. Set the mixture aside for 30-60 minutes in the fridge to let the flavours develop to allow the mixture to firm.
- Make the dipping sauce by dissolving the sugar in the lemon juice. Then add the remaining ingredients and mix until well-combined. Set the sauce aside for about 10-15 minutes before tasting. You may need to add a bit more lemon juice, fish sauce, or even water, to get a good balance of sweet, sour and salty.
- Form the pork mixture into small meatballs about the size of a golf ball, and then flatten them slightly.
- Heat a large frying pan with some vegetable oil and cook the meatballs until they are golden and caramelised.
- Divide the noodles between four large bowls or plates. Add some salad, shredded carrots and herbs to each portion, and top with the meatballs. Provide each person with a bowl of dipping sauce to drizzle over the noodles and also to dip the meatballs into.
The dipping sauce keeps well in the fridge in a sealed jar for several weeks. I often double or triple the recipe so that I always have a bottle handy in the fridge. If you are feeding young children, I tend to omit the chillies from the sauce and either serve chopped chillies or pickled chillies on the side.
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If you have tried this recipe, I would love to hear how it turned out! Please leave a comment below and share your photos on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter using #eatlittlebird