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Why bún chả was the perfect dish for Obama and Bourdain to eat in Hanoi

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U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with a local resident as he leaves after having a dinner with Anthony Bourdain at a restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with staff as he leaves after having a dinner of bun cha at the Bún chả Hương Liên restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam May 23, 2016. 
Credit:

Carlos Barria/Reuters

After a long Monday of shaking hands and brokering military weapons sales in Hanoi, President Barack Obama must have worked up an appetite.

So writer and chef Anthony Bourdain escorted the president to a little diner for some beer and supper.  

The other diners at called Bún Chả Hương Liên seem nonplussed by the leader of the free world eating noodles in their midst. They were there for one reason above all: Bún chả.

The traditional Vietnamese dish consists of grilled pork (chả) served in a broth or dipping sauce, along with rice noodles (bún) and fresh herbs.

“Bún chả is one of the oldest favorites of north Vietnam cuisine,” says Michael Chuong, the chef at Elements, an Asian-fusion restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “They grill pork in two styles,” he says. There's grilled fatty pork, and a preparation that's more like barbecued pulled pork. Chuong says there’s a version of bún chả that’s more popular in southern Vietnam called bún thịt nướng, which features less broth.

A traditional Bún chả meal served in Hanoi, Vietnam usually consists of grilled pork served in a broth or dipping sauce, along with rice noodles and fresh herbs.

Credit:

Courtesy Bún chả Hương Liên.

Chuong’s been busy preparing bún chả at Elements this week. He says it's been selling like crazy ever since the photos of Obama and Bourdain hit social media.

In Vietnam, people enjoy bún chả for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s a timeless recipe. Chef Chuong says that food has allowed him to hold onto his culture. He grew up in southern Vietnam, but was forced to flee at the age of 15 to escape the war.

"I really enjoy bring[ing] Western and Southeast Asian cultures together,” Chuong says. Vietnam already had a tradition of that when he was growing up, especially in the kitchen: "We have this Vietnamese-French fusion style that goes back centuries."

Like Chuong’s fusion cuisine, Obama’s visit to Vietnam is also aimed at linking cultures. On his first presidential visit to the country this week, Obama announced the lifting of a 50-year embargo on US military arms sales to Vietnam. While that will boost the economic and security relationship between the erstwhile enemies, some rights workers fear that the end of the embargo will enable human rights abuses in Vietnam. The Obama administration denies that. On Tuesday the president met with Vietnamese activists to hear their concerns — and he chastised the government when some activists were barred from attending.

If the president’s tour inspires you to give Vietnamese food a try, Chuong points out that there’s a lot more than bún on the menu. His personal favorites include pungent curried crabs and aromatic braised five-spice pork shank.

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