By Ngoc Dinh, World Learning Exchange Student at Chatham
What do you know about Vietnamese food? I have asked this question to many of my international friends. If I am lucky, they would attempt to pronounce some words that I could not recognize. And then they would always ask the same question: What Vietnamese dish do you recommend? How am I supposed to answer that question? My country has sixty-three cities and provinces. My city, Hanoi, alone has hundreds of great dishes. However, for a reason that I am still not quite sure about, I would immediately say: Bún Chả.
Bún Chả is a combination of three main elements: bún, pork, and sauce. Bún is a type of fresh rice noodle. The fibers are milky white and very soft. Bún usually has a little sour taste to it, but if it tastes very sour, it is probably not of good quality. The perfect bún must be newly-made, fresh, and without weird odor. In order to make Chả, fresh pork needs to be ground and made into balls or cut into medium pieces. They are then marinated in a mixture of fish sauce, garlic, sugar, and onion, and then grilled with charcoal. The dipping sauce is the final ingredient. To make this sauce, I usually pour fish sauce in a large bowl and add some water, sugar, chopped garlic, and lime juice. Flower-shaped pieces of raw papaya and carrot are added to the sauce. Lastly, fresh vegetables and herbs are served along.
I usually cook and eat Bún Chả at home. To make Bún Chả, I put the black charcoal and firewood into an old iron cookie box. My mom starts the fire with her special fire-making technique, a result of her poor childhood without a proper cooker. I am in charge of sustaining the fire by flapping a hand fan vehemently towards it. The continuous movements afflict my arm, but I actually take pleasure in the weariness. The task can be a drudgery, but I am delighted to watch the black charcoal turn gray, and the bright orange flame dancing on it, until the pork pieces obtain a brownish appetizing color. That is when the business gets serious. Complete concentration has to be invested to ensure the meat is cooked inside out as well as remains juicy and spiced.
The grilled pieces are placed onto the plates, one after another, succulent and inviting. The white fat noodle bars line up beside, waiting for their destiny. The vegetables and herbs add the green color to the plate, followed by bowls of golden sauce. My heart is enthralled by the moment when we sit down by the table. The smoke fills my heart with exhilaration. The sound of chopsticks clicks in the kitchen. The right smell fills up my nose. I am ready. It is ready.
It is hard to name the “side-kick” of the meal: the noodle, the meat, the veggie, or the sauce. The noodle is dull; the meat is greasy; the vegetable is bitter; and the sauce is unpleasant to eat alone. Magically, the combination of them is just perfect. The bland noodle is a white page for the spiced meat to draw on. Meanwhile, the freshness of the vegetable eases the harshness in the sauce. That moment when they all touch my tongue, I picture the meat’s explosive sweetness and grease, the noodle’s elegance, and the vegetables’ liveliness. Absorbed in them is the sauce that blends every taste together, making the greatest combination of all. Of course, the absence of any ingredients will not guarantee the dish’s quality. Teamwork makes the dream work, my mom would say. It also applies for the cooking process. My grandma prepares the ingredients, before my mom makes the fire and crafts the sauce. I conquer the meat challenge, while dad wakes up the garden to pick the freshest vegetable of the day. Afterwards, my brother voluntarily devotes his game time for making the neatest table of his life. We need no words; we are a well-trained team.
It never feels the same, though, to eat elsewhere. The pork is nice; the noodle is flawless; and the sauce is explosive as always. Yet, the nervousness, the excitement, and the warmth are never there. As I wait calmly for the dishes to be served, I feel nothing. The meal comes and goes. Deep down, I know that Bún Chả needs that team spirit to be complete.
When president Obama visited Hanoi this year, he ate Bún Chả on an old-quarter restaurant. I bet it tasted good. Yet I should have invited him to taste the Bún Chả at my home, one that definitely surpasses every dish in Hanoi, definitely the most extraordinary dish in the world.