When most people think of Vietnamese food, they think of pho, the aromatic noodle soup so prolific in Vietnamese and American cuisine these days. We even have our own recipe we’ve shared here. But I’ve asked the few friends who have traveled to Vietnam. So many of them have said that one of their favorite dishes was bun cha. I’ll have to admit, this wasn’t even on my radar as a dish that would be in our rotation of Vietnamese cuisine. Maybe it’s because my family rarely made it. Or maybe it’s so similar to other Vietnamese dishes that we never deviated from those. Whatever the reason, we decided to give this dish a go. And this dish turns out out to be quite the hidden gem if you didn’t already know about it.
What you’ll need
So if you’ve eaten a large variety of Vietnamese food, you’ll recognize a lot of the same ingredients in this dish. You have rice noodles, a variety of fresh herbs, nuoc cham (a sweet & spicy fish sauce), and some sort of well-seasoned protein, in this case ground pork. And those little pork meatballs are really the star of the show. Infused with lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, and oyster sauce, it plays on so many of your taste buds that you may have a hard time stopping yourself from going for more and more, even after you’re full.
This is a very simple recipe, but like I stated before, there are so many flavors at work here. Like most Vietnamese dishes, the flavors are well balanced and provide a refreshing and satisfying eating experience.
Where to buy
If at all possible, get the right ingredients from an Asian supermarket since most American stores do not carry a lot of Asian foods, especially herbs and noodles. We are lucky in that we have one within an hour’s drive and we usually stock up on dried and frozen items when we go. Our local store even carries fish sauce and oyster sauce, but your money goes much further at the Asian market. None of the local stores carry the fresh herbs typically used in Vietnamese food. Our local grocery store at least has fresh lemongrass sometimes.
We usually have to make a special trip for the fresh herbs when planning these types of meals. Totally worth it, since there really isn’t any substitute for the flavors of certain herbs!
The Details of the Recipe
Prepping the Meatballs
So let’s get started with the star of the show, the pork meatballs. You start by making a caramel sauce with 1/4 cup of sugar and about 3 tablespoons of water. Heat that in a sauce pan until boiling and then lower the heat to medium and continue simmering until caramel in color. Stir frequently to keep from burning. Set that aside to cool and gather the rest of the ingredients.
You’ll need about 1-2 lbs of ground pork, depending on how much you’ll eat. This recipe should be good for about 4 people. Regular fat ground pork works best, with about 15% fat to keep it moist when grilling.
Place the pork in a large bowl and grab 3 stalks of lemongrass. You can use pre-minced lemongrass to save time, if you can find it. Mince the lemongrass finely, being sure to use just the white parts. Next, mince 5-6 garlic pieces, or as many to your taste. Again, to save time, you can go with pre-minced garlic here as well.
Put the lemongrass and garlic into the bowl with the pork and add the black pepper, oyster sauce, fish sauce, some chopped shallots or onions, and the caramel sauce made earlier.
Combine all ingredients and mix well with clean hands. Like most Asian cultures, food is mixed by hand, but if this is something you’re not comfortable with, a large spoon, spatula, or fork will do. Just be sure that everything is well blended.
Let that sit for a few minutes while you cook the vermicelli noodles per the package directions and wash the fresh herbs for serving with the dish. Put the cooked noodles in a large bowl and put the herbs on a large plate for family-style dining.
At this point, I should note that if you don’t have any nuoc cham already made, this would be a good time to make it, since you’ll want to make the pork meatballs, grill them, and eat them right away. Nuoc cham is the sweet and spicy dipping sauce that is commonly used in Vietnamese cuisine and you can find our quick and simple recipe here. We almost always have some in our refrigerator as it keeps really well.
If you’re grilling these, now would be a good time to heat the grill. If you’re going to cook these on the stovetop, you can wait until all the meatballs are formed. So I keep referring to these as meatballs, but they’re more of a small patty. To make them though, you start with a small scoop of the pork mix, and shape it into a ball about 1-inch in diameter. Try not to pack the meat too tightly, as it will make them a little dense and dry when you grill them.
Once you have the ball formed, gently press it out into a small patty. Mine typically turn out a little oval instead of round, but it doesn’t really matter as long as they’re about 1/2-inch thick all around. Stack them all on a plate and get your grill or pan ready.
Grilling is the traditional method for cooking these. I like to have my grill set around the medium setting for our propane grill. Since all grills are different, I would say you want your grill around 350-375 °F. You can adjust if your patties are cooking too fast. Just place them on the grill with enough space around each to allow for flipping with a spatula.
I’ve tried using tongs before, and with the small pieces, it doesn’t work as well as using a spatula and flipping them like burgers. You’ll want to keep on eye on these as they cook fairly quickly. Your patties will start to caramelize from the sugar in it and get a nice light brown color with a little charing around the edges.
Once done, place them on a plate for serving.
Serving this Beautiful Dish!
Once everything is done, set up your dishes family-style and enjoy. Depending on what you’re used to, you can enjoy this dish several ways. Some dip the patties in the nuoc cham and eat it with the noodles and herbs in a small bowl. Some eat it as wrap with lettuce, and dip the whole wrap in a smaller bowl of the nuoc cham. We prefer to eat it by adding a little of everything in a small bowl and scooping a little sauce on top.
And that’s it! Fairly straightforward and simple, as long as you can find the right ingredients. Don’t be afraid to substitute ingredients and see if those flavors work for you. We can’t always find the traditional ingredients so we make do and sometimes it’s almost as good. Let us know if you try this recipe and if you’ve discovered any unique substitutions that make it just as enjoyable.
Pork Meatballs (Cha)
- 1 ½ – 2 lbs Ground pork
- ⅓ cup Sugar
- 3 tbsp Minced garlic
- 3 stalks Fresh lemongrass (whites only)
- ¼ cup shallots or onions
- 2 tbsp Fish sauce
- 3 tsp Oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp Black pepper
Fresh herbs (if available)
- Thai basil
- Bean sprouts
- Sawtooth coriander
- Fish mint
- 1 pkg Vermicelli rice noodles (1 lb package)
- Wash and drain fresh herbs and place on a large plate for serving.
- Boil vermicelli noodles per package directions, rinse with hot water, drain well, and place in a large bowl for serving. Cover until ready to serve to prevent drying.
- Combine sugar and 3 tablespoons of water in a saucepan and heat to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and stir frequently until the sauce is caramel in color. Stir in an additional 2 tablespoons of water, remove from heat and set aside.
- Mince lemongrass and garlic and dice shallots. Place in a large bowl with pork, fish sauce, oyster sauce, black pepper, and caramel sauce.
- Mix thoroughly and set aside to preheat grill.
- Form the pork mixture into small meatballs, about 1 inch in diameter and then flatten into a small patty. Continue until all the pork is formed into patties.
- Once grill is around 350 °F, place patties on grate and space evenly to allow for flipping. Cook until both sides are browned and slightly charred on the edges.
- Serve patties with fresh herbs, vermicelli noodles, and nuoc cham.