It's time I got back to Hanoi in these pages.
To a dish that is literally in the air in this city. When I breathe in its blue meaty smoke, I start to salivate. Bún chả is a barbeque dish unsurpassed on the street food terroir of Hanoi, available up and down its wide boulevards and in its maze of alleys. Orange hot coals spitting with pork fat, griller ladies covered for battle in heavy duty blue-collar wear and face masks, and that wafting drift cloud of protein. These are the signs to seek out from late morning till about one o'clock.
Lunch time in Hanoi is bún chả o'clock, as it cannot be had for dinner. Two pre-requisites for eating this dish are come early and come hungry. Adjust the body clock, eat a paltry breakfast and walk briskly to avoid disappointment. I like to be amongst the first customers. In fact, I have a small confession to make. I sometimes have bún chả for breakfast.
Yesterday at 10.15, I was 'testing' a new vendor for the second time. I'm not yet prepared to forsake my default bún chả vendor but I am of the theory that one cannot have too many good quality bún chả purveyors. I have my go-to phở houses around town and it defies logic that I wouldn't do the same for bún chả. Let me state surreptitiously that, while many are enamoured of phở and the bánh mì as Vietnam's major culinary contributions to world cuisine, I vote for bún chả.
And it is largely because I am in a deep love affair with pork belly. My hungry arrival at this vendor's plot of footpath was like re-consummating our relationship. Naked and greasy, glistening in raw splendour, little strips of my love are arranged into wire grillers after an hour or so of marination. "Do you think I'm going to give my secret away?", huffed the vendor when I asked her about the ingredients in her marinade. "Many more than that", when I suggested the typical mix of fish sauce, sugar and shallots. She was equally evasive when I showed interest in the rice paper she was using to wrap her spring rolls (nem rán, a traditional accompaniment to bún chả in Hanoi ), which has a coarser, crispier mouthfeel that is distinctive. "Thửa" (meaning that is something special I found myself) was her retort. Short of assuring her that I (tall whitie foreigner) will not be setting up a rival stall in the gutter beside hers, winning this woman's favour will require a few return visits.
When all is said and done, though, the answer is ultimately in the eating. My blue plastic table is cluttered with bún chả's components; an over-abundance of Vietnam's herbal green, including lettuce, sawtooth coriander, coriander, Asian basil, lemon balm and perilla leaf, a fluoro-white mound of fresh vermicelli rice noodles (the bún in bún chả), a plate of smacked up garlic and sliced chili, crisp spring rolls scissored into bite size chunks and the bowl of salty, sweet, sour, spicy nước chấm containing the crispy black-edged pork belly and minced pork patties.
I'm going to lay my culinary soul bare for a moment. I've been considering coming out with it for a while. Bún chả done well, as it is here, is near (if not at) the very top of my list of eating experiences.
Here, in Vietnam. And elsewhere.
Nem - Bún Chả
13 Hàng Bún St (cnr. of Phạm Hồng Thái St)
Ba Đình District