Sunday, March 16, 2008
The balanced bun cha.
Most cultures have a sense of balance when it comes to eating. In the states, we use the term “balanced meal”, and use the food groups to define a balanced diet, even if we don’t generally employ those characteristics in every meal. In Thailand, we employ the four flavors (sweet, spicy, sour, and salty) to give our dishes a sense of balance. In Vietnam, balance is an essential aspect of a meal, present not only in the dishes themselves, but in the arrangement of dishes. If the main dish is heavy, the accompaniments should be light. If the main dish is light, the accompaniments should be a little heavier. This isn’t true only of elegant meals or lavish dinners, however. This balance can be observed anywhere- even in a simple street-side meal of bun cha.
A specialty of Hanoi, bun cha is a deliciously smoky dish of barbecued pork. Walking down the street in Hanoi, it’s hard not to be tempted by the rich woody scent of bun cha sizzling in a sidewalk kitchen. After taking a seat, the waitress confirms our order, and quickly dishes out our food. She first brings the bun cha, ground pork and pork shoulder bacon that have been marinated in chili and lemongrass and grilled over charcoal. It's served in a light soup of fish-sauce, garlic, chili and a sliced crisp vegetable. Since bun cha is fairly heavy, it’s served with two very light dishes. The first is a plate of simple rice noodles, reflective of the role rice plays as foundation for all Vietnamese meals. The second is a basket of raw herbs: purple mint, sawtooth coriander, cilantro, and other mixed greens. By alternating tastes of the richly flavored meat with cleansing mouthfuls of noodles or sharp fresh bites of herbs, the heaviness of the meal is lifted, creating a filling lunch that doesn’t weigh us down.