Whereas in and around Saigon, people love to dig into bodacious bowls of bún rice noodle salads, Hanoians adore leisurely meals of bún chả, which involves composing and enjoying smallish bowls of lettuce, herbs, rice noodles, and grilled pork. The former delivers convenience in a bowl, the latter coax conversation. They use the same ingredients, but Hanoi cooks do something quirky—they plunge the grilled meat into the dipping sauce, where it releases its juices to build extra umami depth. Thin slices of carrot and kohlrabi marinate in the sauce to add a pickled crunch.
In Hanoi, two kinds of pork are typically cooked over charcoal; ground pork patties and sliced fatty pork or pork belly. For the sliced pork, I bake bacon, which lends a smoky, rich flavor. I cook the patties on a stove-top cast-iron grill. There’s less work involved to create this delicious signature dish of Hanoi. For extra authenticity points, see the Notes for details on swapping pork shoulder for bacon.
One 6- to 8-ounce package small dried round rice noodles (maifun), or one 10- to 12-ounce package dried rice capellini or thin spaghetti
1 cup Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce (this page)
⅔ cup water
1 small carrot, thinly sliced or shaved with a vegetable peeler
1 small kohlrabi, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced or shaved with a vegetable peeler (optional)
Leaves from 1 large head soft-leaf lettuce (such as butter, Boston, or red or green leaf)
1 small handful mint or basil sprigs, or a combination
1 small handful cilantro sprigs
½ cup chopped shallot or yellow onion
2½ tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil, plus more for grilling
2½ teaspoons Caramel Sauce (this page), or 2 teaspoons molasses
1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon sugar
Scant 1 teaspoon recently ground black pepper
12 ounces mildly salty bacon, regular or thick-cut
1¼ pounds ground pork (about 85% lean)
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
In a pot of unsalted water, boil the noodles until chewy-tender; the cooking time depends on the noodle and brand. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water, and drain well for about 5 minutes. For easy and fast serving, arrange the noodles as 2- to 3-inch nests on two plates or in low bowls.
Dilute the dipping sauce with the ⅔ cup water. Divide among two soup bowls for sharing or four cereal bowls for individual servings (bowls with a capacity of 2 to 3 cups work well). Divide the carrot and kohlrabi (if using) among the bowls. Set aside. Arrange the lettuce and herbs on two platters and set on the table with the rice noodles. For each diner, set out a cereal or rice bowl, plus chopsticks and a spoon.
Preheat the oven to 400°F no more. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and set aside.
In a small food processor, combine the shallot, fish sauce, canola oil, caramel sauce, sugar, and pepper and whirl into a slightly coarse puree. (Or, use a mortar and pestle to pound the shallot, sugar, and pepper into a rough paste and then add the liquid ingredients).
Pour ¼ cup of the puree into a medium bowl then add the bacon, and massage to coat each bacon slice well. Arrange the bacon on the prepared baking sheet; lay the slices flat and let them touch. Bake for 16 to 18 minutes for a regular cut, or 23 to 25 minutes for thick-cut, until well browned and chewy-crisp. Let cool on paper towels to drain and finish crisping. For easier eating, cut or snip the bacon strips crosswise into three-inch pieces.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the ground pork, salt, and 1½ tablespoons puree, reserving the rest. Mix well, then let sit for at least 5 minutes to firm up. Shape the pork into twelve patties, each about 2½ inches in diameter and a good ½ thick. For even cooking, use a finger or fat chopstick to poke a hole in the center of each one. Set aside on parchment or wax paper.