Whenever I go back to Vietnam, as soon as I step off the plane I can practically smell and taste the enticing aromas and flavors of the country’s amazing street food. My favorite is bún cha, a specialty of Hanoi sold by street vendors in the city’s bustling open-air markets. Bún cha is a refreshing salad made with cool, tender rice noodles and crisp lettuce topped with grilled pork patties and a generous ladling of a mildly hot sweet-and-sour sauce called nuoc cham. Traditionally, bún cha is savored on the street or in a market at small food stalls ringed with narrow counters and tiny plastic chairs on which diners sit shoulder to shoulder, hunched over their brimming bowls of food. But it’s also a dish the Vietnamese make at home when they want something light and delicious that’s easy to put together.
Nuoc cham, the dipping sauce that accompanies bún cha, is an important part of Vietnamese cuisine, and it’s critical to the success of this dish. A well-made nuoc cham relies on a perfect balance of salty, sweet, sour, and hot fl avors. It’s a classic Vietnamese sauce that’s served at the table with almost every meal; you’ll fi nd it accompanying spring rolls, grilled meats, and noodle dishes. You can dip food in it or drizzle it over a dish.
Bún cha is traditionally served with an abundance of fresh herbs. In Vietnam, we use red shiso or perilla (heart-shaped leaves with a serrated edge and pungent fl avor), sawtooth cilantro (sturdier and with a heartier, more complex taste than regular cilantro), and mint. But the dish is just as good if you use herbs that are commonly available here, like regular cilantro and mint.
A well-made nuoc cham has a good balance of four flavors common to Southeast Asian food.
• Salty fish sauce
• Sour vinegar
• Hot chiles
• Sweet sugar