This week it got well and truly cold in Toronto. Layers and lots of them have been my priority all week long. But when I wasn’t willing my jeans to close over my second pair of long johns, I was thinking about places that are not here. Places where there’s no need for parkas, where flowers are in bloom 365 days a year, places where you can contemplate eating something other than chili night after night. Something like these Bún chả Lettuce Cups with their light, crisp texture and simultaneously rich and refreshing flavors. I’ll admit posting these beauties in the midst of winter isn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. But hey! There’s nothing wrong with a little culinary escapism. So crank the heat, swap your snow pants for something fluorescent, and crack a beer. We’re going to pretend we’re anywhere but here.Jump to Recipe
I regret to inform you there is very little that is authentic about these Bún Chả Lettuce Cups. And how do I know that? Well, the fact that I’ve never been to Vietnam has to be the first indication. So, take my recipe with a bag of salt because, no, I’ve never had Bún chả on the streets of Hanoi. But please believe me when I say, I desperately want to.
I don’t think there is a cuisine on this planet that I adore more than Vietnamese. It really scratches every itch, culinarily speaking. It’s light, fresh, crunchy, salty, aggressive and gentle. Its duality is what I find most intriguing, no bite is exactly the same. The cuisine is a chorus of contrast. So, yeah, a trip to Vietnam has been on my list for a long time. But until that day comes, I must turn to the Internet and my local restos to transport me in whatever way they can.
For those of you who are, like, “Bun
Bún thịt nướng is a sort of rice noodle salad served with grilled pork and garnished pickled daikon, carrot and a variety of fresh herbs. A dressing is usually poured over an assembled bowl with the noodles at its base. Bún chả has grilled pork and rice noodles and fresh herbs as well, but it also has grilled pork meatballs and green papaya in place of the radish and carrot. I didn’t include green papaya because I couldn’t find it.
Another crucial difference is the dressing. True, bún chả dressing is made with lime juice, vinegar and fish sauce like the one you’d find alongside Bún thịt nướng, but the dressing is poured over the meat instead of the assembled bowl. The papaya, herbs and rice noodles are served as sides. The eater plucks noodles and whatnot from the individual plates and dunks them into the bowl with the meat and dressing.
Now, in the spirit of January, I opted to turn Hanoi’s favorite dish into lettuce cups. And why did I do this? Well, the Bún chả I’ve had here in Toronto, usually results in me looking for a soft place to lie down. So, unless your resolution is to eat and sleep more, I feel like the lettuce cup approach is more sensitive to your goals. There is a time for joyfully debacherous over-eating, and I don’t think it’s January.
So, why does Bún chả make you want to pass out under the table? Well, whenever I partake in the dish, I often eat way too many noodles and far too much pork belly. The mountain of carbs and the excess of not-so-lean protein conspire to lull me into a coma every time. So, with these Bún chả Lettuce Cups, I knew I had to scale back the noodle content and swap out the pork belly for a less fatty cut. I landed on a blade steak, which I’ll admit is not particularly lean, but at least you can trim it a bit without destroying the point of eating it. Can you imagine trimming pork belly? It’s kind of like sugar-free chocolate: sure, you could eat it but you’re probably better off skipping it altogether.
As for limiting my noodle intake, the lettuce cups more or less took care of that for me. Unlike a bowl, a lettuce leaf can only accommodate so many noodles. So, once your leaf runneth over, you tend to walk away. You’re kind of tricking your mind into believing there is an abundance of noodles. And either my brain is very stupid or this trick really does work because I actually felt relatively energized after eating these Bún chả Lettuce Cups. But then I remembered what it was like outside and found myself cocooning once again. Totally not the noodles’ fault, though.
So, that’s everything you need to know about these Bún chả Lettuce Cups. Light, refreshing and not remotely resembling chili, these crisp beauties give your winter-hating-self a much-needed getaway. I swear, one bite and you’ll feel the sun on your face.
Bún chả Lettuce Cups
Grilled Pork & Meatballs
- 450g (1 lb) ground pork
- 1 large blade steak fat trimmed, sliced thin
- 2 shallots halved
- 2 scallions coarsely chopped
- 1 clove garlic peeled
- 1 red chile
- 2 tsp demerara sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 tbsp white vinegar
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp demerara sugar
- 1 lime juiced
Bun Cha Lettuce Cups
- 1 batch Grilled Pork and Meatballs see above
- 1 batch Sauce see above
- 4 bundles mung bean noodles
- 1 head boston lettuce leaves removed, washed
- 4-5 French radishes sliced thin
- 2 carrots julienned
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1-2 red chilies sliced thin
- 1 handful fresh cilantro torn
Grilled Pork & Meatballs
- Place the ground pork and sliced blade steak in separate bowls and set aside.
- Place the shallots, scallions, garlic, red chili, salt and sugar in a food processor. Blitz until the mixture resembles mulch. Pour in the fish sauce and blitz again until cohesive.
- Divide the marinade between the two bowls. Toss to coat the sliced pork and cover tightly before transferring to the fridge. Using a clean hand, mix the marinade into the ground pork until cohesive. Cover tightly and transfer to the fridge. Leave the two bowls to sit for at least an hour.
- Once the hour has passed, form the ground pork into small meatballs. Use a heaping tablespoon as a guide. Flatten the meatballs and transfer to a hot griddle. Grill roughly 3 minutes a side, then transfer to a large bowl.
- Add the sliced pork to the griddle and cook for 1 minute a side or longer depending on how thick the pork is cut. Transfer the meat to the same bowl and keep warm until ready to serve.
- Place all the ingredients except the lime juice in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook until the sugar dissolves, stirring constantly.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool for 15 minutes before stirring in the lime juice. Pour the finished sauce over the Grilled Pork and Meatballs and serve immediately
- Cook the mung bean noodles as directed on the package. Place the noodles, radish, carrot, garlic, red chilies and cilantro on a large plate. Place the lettuce leaves on another. Serve alongside the meat and encourage everyone to build their own cups to their specifications. Enjoy with a cold beer.