If there was one, just one cuisine, that I was forced to eat, forsaking all others for eternity, it just might be that of Vietnam. Granted, my exposure to Vietnamese food is fairly narrow - some restaurants in Buffalo…some in Boston. Never have I set my clumsy feet on Vietnamese soil for a spoon of Phở or some Bánh mì. That’s not to say that I never will…
This is my attempt at one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes – I believe the name is Bun Thit Nuong – at least that’s what it was called on the menu of Pho 99 – a wonderful little place that was nestled into the heart of downtown Buffalo, until its building was razed for yet another courthouse. Come to scenic Buffalo, the personal injury litigation capital of the Northeast.
Grrr…stepping away from the bitterness…I love the flavors of the food, the freshness of the herbs and vegetables, the heat from the chilis, the salty sour flavors of citrus and fish sauce, the smoky char of the grilled meat, the ubiquitous dipping sauces. Vietnamese food seems to have it all, and this dish, for me, is the perfect example.
Grilled pork served over noodles and vegetables. The pork is essentially a quick sausage, full of shallots and garlic, and formed into logs. Pork logs, I’ve been informed, does not sound terribly appealing, and that may be true, but it’s an apt description. The noodles are rice vermicelli (just thin noodles made from rice, cooked quickly with a soak in hot water), and the salad is shredded lettuce (some herbs mixed in), cucumbers, carrots and bean sprouts.
The most important element, however, is the sauce. It’s a bowl of Nuoc Cham, the standard Vietnamese dipping sauce. It’s salty, sour and sweet, and potentially spicy. It’s one of those things that comes on strong, and once the taste leaves your mouth, you get desperate for more. And more. You’re willing to drink the remaining liquid straight from the bowl, much to the chagrin and disgust of some of your coworkers (those poor bastards don’t know what they are missing), and indeed, when you wake up at 2:15 A.M., still burping limey fish sauce and dreaming of pork logs, you know you’re well on your way to an addiction and may find yourself whipping up a batch for breakfast.
This is what I hear anyway.
When I get my hands on this dish, the nuoc cham is poured over the top, as a dressing, the pork is removed from its skewers, delogged, and mixed in, so the flavors can come together in the bowl. I then disappear into a state of unawareness and bliss.
In the end, my rendition was not nearly as good or as flavorful as Pho’s. That’s fine with me. It was still delicious.
To go with it, I went for a German Riesling. A white wine that can go from cloyingly sweet to dry, Riesling is known to be a food friendly wine, especially with flavorful and spicy Southeast Asian dishes, because of its sweetness and acidity. It’s also one we were already fans of, and in fact, is a wine that flourishes in one of the few places I’ve been outside of the country. The Mosel River valley in Germany is known for its Rieslings and the picture below was taken on a trip there back in May of 2001. My crappy camera and I simply didn’t do justice to the land.
This Riesling was delicious on its own, with citrus and melony flavors. It wasn’t bubbly by any means, but seemed to have a bit of a sparkle to it. Once it met the dish, the lime flavors in both the nuoc cham and the wine exploded. Literally, yes, our kitchen was aflame. It was like they were destined to meet, the wine both emphasizing the flavors and cooling the spiciness.
And finally, the recipes..
1/4-1/3 C water
1/4-1/3 C fish sauce
1/4-1/3 C lime juice (gotta be fresh)
Sugar to taste, I start with 1-2TB and work up from there
Minced garlic, to taste
Minced chilis/chili rings, to taste
Mix everything together well (might need to whisk in the sugar.) It’s that easy. I usually start with equal amounts of the 3 liquids and then add more of them to change the flavors once the rest of the ingredients are in. The flavors are strong, so more water is always an option. You don’t need alot of garlic – sometimes I just leave it out, or float a smashed glove in there. In the pictured version, I used a bunch of green garlic. Same with the chilis – I like using the rings, as they can be eaten or avoided and don’t completely overwhelm the rest of the sauce.
The Pork (Logs)
1 lb ground pork
Handful of minced shallots
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks lemongrass, peeled to the core, minced
2 TB fish sauce
1 TB oil
Small handful of bread crumbs (enough to bind the pork)
Mix all the ingredients together – if you want to grind the pork from scratch and get more pork fat in there, go for it. Fry a small piece to test the flavors and adjust if necessary. Refrigerate the mixture, squeeze onto wooden skewers using the palm of your hand, and grill/broil until cooked through.
Mint & Cilantro
Cook some rice vermicelli according to the directions on the package. Rinse with cool water when done and set aside to drain. Shred some lettuce (in this case, iceberg works great), add some chopped mint and cilantro, and julienne some carrots and cucumbers. Put some of the noodles at the bottom of the bowl. Top with lettuce, carrots, cukes, and bean sprouts. Lay a couple skewers on the top, sprinkle on some crushed peanuts and cilantro and serve with a big, overflowing bowl of nuoc cham.