Defining Dishes

The dish that defines me: Alex Outhwaite’s Vietnamese bun cha

When Alex Outhwaite spent a year teaching English in Hanoi, little did she know that her favourite after-school street food snack, bun cha, or Vietnamese meatballs, would go on to win her the cooking competition that launched her television career. As told to Kate Ng

Monday 17 July 2023 06:30 BST
(Alex Outhwaite/Getty)

Defining Dishes is a new IndyEats column that explores the significance of food at key moments in our lives. From recipes that have been passed down for generations, to flavours that hold a special place in our hearts, food shapes every part of our lives in ways we might not have ever imagined.

I got my first job in Hanoi as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher and taught a kindergarten class at the weekends. The school had a mix of Vietnamese and other EFL teachers, so I was able to make a lot of really great friends who were very keen to educate all of us foreigners on the best local food. On my first day at the school, they took me to a bun cha stall nearby that was really, really popular and it was always full. They served it with strips of pork belly, which is uncommon. Quite often, you’d have to wait a little while to get a seat, but it was always worth it. Once, I saw a bride and groom dining there in their wedding outfits!

My favourite thing about bun cha is the smell of smoky meat coming off the open-air grill. It would fill the air around you while you sat and waited for your food to arrive. That delicious smell is what I miss the most when I try to make it for myself in the UK but it’s really hard to recreate indoors. The way my Vietnamese friends taught me to eat it was to pour the nuoc cham – a sauce made from fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and water – all over the dish and mix it all up, but I know other people just dip the meat in it. I’m sure there’s no one correct or incorrect way to do it, but the sauce is so delicious, why wouldn’t you want to soak the whole thing in it?

I spent one year in Hanoi and moved back to my parent’s house in York, where I grew up, in 2011. By this time, I’d done a few embarrassing TV adverts and little acting jobs in Hanoi, and I went on to do quite a lot of presenting work on little local channels and corporate videos. Then I came across a Sainsbury’s magazine, I think, that was running a competition by the British Herb Association, which I’d never heard of before.

They were looking for people to cook a recipe using British-grown herbs. I decided to try making a bun cha at home by adapting a recipe by New Zealand-born US chef Bobby Chin. I’m sure I butchered it and Anglicised it (all those terrible things) because I’d never made it before. But I did use some fresh British herbs, coriander and mint that my parents grew in their garden, which was quite sweet. I filmed myself making it and submitted it for the competition, and in the end, I was invited to take part in the final.

I’d really like to highlight that I am not a chef. I like my food and I enjoy cooking, but I’ve never pretended to be a chef. Anyway, I went to London and participated in the cook-off against two other ladies and was judged by Masterchef’s John Torode. Of course I’d seen him on TV quite a lot – he was fairly intimidating, to be honest. He was very friendly off-camera, but he plays a part when they’re rolling. I remember he came up to me and said: “Oh, you obviously much prefer cooking in your own home than in a professional kitchen.” I said: “Well, yes, I’m not a professional.”

He was very complimentary about my dish, although he did highlight that there was a lack of smokiness in the meat, which was a very fair point. But I won the competition somehow and that’s how it linked me to getting my first proper TV presenting gig. I saw an advert for a TV channel in Mumbai that was searching for a presenter who could also cook, so I sent off my details and a video of me making bun cha in the competition.

A couple of days later, they got in touch with me and seemed quite pleased by my enthusiasm. I was flown out to Delhi just two weeks later. It seemed too good to be true, but I started presenting on a show called Quest, which was initially only broadcast in Mumbai on Travelxp. It’s now an international channel that broadcasts in about 30 countries. The show had me visiting chefs and families around India and learning about “forgotten dishes” that people were rediscovering and cooking.

It was an incredible opportunity and I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I do. Maybe I should be thanking Sainsbury’s magazine. But it’s bun cha and Hanoi that I have the most love for. When I make it now, I have this image in my mind of the place that I would go with my teacher friends and I’m doing my very best to emulate that flavour. I’m sure if I went back now and tried the authentic version again, I’d think: “God, I’m just butchering it.” But you know, I’m doing my best.

Alex Outhwaite is a travel TV presenter. She has hosted several travel shows, including ‘The Wanderer’ on Prime Video.

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