I did not grow up eating Asian food. I tried Chinese food on my own with my childhood best friend when I was about 14 or so (I can’t remember it very well now). I do remember feeling very adult because I ordered a main dish, an egg roll, and wanton soup (our parents had dropped us off at a large outdoor mall and we would be heading to the movies later that evening). That just felt sophisticated to me. My parents like Chinese food and certainly eat it now, so I don’t remember why we didn’t eat it then. I didn’t try anything Asian outside of Chinese food until after college, when I fell in love with bi bim bap, a Korean hot pot dish, and aloo matar, an Indian potato and pea curry. And I didn’t try Thai food until law school. At every step of the way, as I was introduced to a new type of Asian cooking, I fell in love with it. Except Vietnamese food. For some reason I did not care for it—I think maybe my first examples of it were replete with whole, raw basil and mint leaves, and while I like basil and mint, I don’t love that much basil and mint. To this day, when cooking my own Vietnamese food, I tend to chop the herbs down more than the recipe calls for. Anyway Vietnamese food for me is unique because I learned to love it by cooking it myself—no restaurant example required.
You are probably wondering how on earth I could be sure I got it right? Well I don’t blame you, but I have since confirmed by going back to those Vietnamese restaurants that I shunned and ordering more wisely (i.e., to my taste). And yep, it tastes like what I make at home—fresh, crunchy, salty, sweet and sour. And delicious.
If you like Thai salads with their dressings made of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, sugar and fresh chiles, then you will love a lot of Vietnamese food. A constant presence on their tables is Nuoc Cham, a concoction very similar to the Thai salad dressings. I have seen some recipes call for vinegar, garlic, shallots, etc but the basic premise remains the same. And for me personally, to quote Emeril, I could eat the stuff off of a bumper. At the Vietnamese restaurant that I frequent “here” (ok it is an hour away but it is delicious and it is near the grocery store I go once a month in Cincinnati) the proprietress started remembering me as the girl who ordered her food “Vietnamese style” (they had been putting Italian dressing on the vegetable side of my meal, I guess because they assumed I would find the fish sauce too pungently unfamiliar).
Without good fish sauce, the father’s daughter will not shine.
Mai Pham, in her book Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table uses this Vietnamese proverb to illustrate the importance of fish sauce (nuoc mam) at the Vietnamese table. Nuoc cham is the “diluted” form of fish sauce that is served at the table as a condiment. I don’t think of it as diluted, however, for as much as I love the fish sauce I love the lime juice and garlic too. Anyway, I cannot emphasize nuoc cham’s importance enough. Tonight’s dish was just a little inferior to some similar dishes I have made in the past—it turned out at the last minute I did not have basil or mint or cucumber, and my oyster sauce was a vastly inferior grocery store brand because I forgot to buy oyster sauce while in the city (I would normally have some but our pantry got cleared out when we moved this past fall). But it did not matter, the dish was still delicious, because the nuoc cham held it all together. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with nuoc cham and a little apprehensive serving its very strong flavor to children: my eldest daughter obsessively drenched her entire meal in the stuff tonight. “More dressing, Mommy, more!”
The specific dish I made tonight is a variation on a basic type of Vietnamese dish that I have encountered repeatedly in my Vietnamese cookbooks. There is a marinated meat, either grilled or stir-fried, served with rice vermicelli and raw veggies and herbs and the nuoc cham on the side; usually the word “bun” is in the title of the dish. I have made several different successful versions with pork. Although I think this dish is quite flexible and could be done with pork, beef, chicken, shrimp or even tofu, I will point out that the marinade in this adaptation is probably best suited to beef, as beef can stand up to the salty oyster sauce. But that is not to say that it could not be made with those other options and indeed if beef is not in your repertoire for whatever reason I really encourage you to try with a different choice. This dish is flexible, easy, healthy and really really delicious.
A note about slicing sirloin for stir fries: thin slices work best here, so I recommend either partially thawing or partially freezing (depending on which state it starts out in) your meat. You will have a much easier time slicing finely if it is not super soft.
Every Vietnamese family (and non-Vietnamese but Vietnamese-food-loving family, such as ours) has their own recipe for nuoc cham. Many recipes call for some water to dilute the nuoc cham—I use very little because I love the really strong flavors inherent in the dish. The version I prefer is more commonly prepared in the south, where sugar, garlic and lime juice are added, as opposed to a more simple Northern preparation of fresh chiles in fish sauce. Lately I have left out the chiles because I want my daughters to love the dish and be familiar with these flavors, but if you want the heat, I recommend very thin slices (forming rings) of Thai bird chiles. The measurements I have given are extremely rough—everything is to taste, and it should be to your taste, not mine. I never measure anything for this dish but rather just sit with the ingredients in front of me, adding and tasting until I get it right. Raw garlic bothers my stomach, so for the garlic I add 1-3 smashed cloves of garlic and let it infuse the dressing.
1-3 cloves garlic, smashed
juice of 2 limes
7 T good quality fish sauce (nuoc mam)
3 T sugar
2 T water
Mix ingredients and make sure that the sugar dissolves. If too salty, try more lime juice. If too sour, try more fish sauce. If too overwhelming and/or not sweet enough try water and/or sugar. If too sweet, try some fish sauce and lime juice (or just fish sauce, depending on how sour you like things). The dressing should not really be sweet, but rather just hint at it. IF the condiment is totally new to you and so you are having trouble deciding what it should taste like, I recommend setting it aside until you have the rice vermicelli made, and then drizzling a little on the noodles and judging from that. Much like a salsa that might be too strong on its own but pairs beautifully with a corn tortilla chip, the nuoc cham’s accurate flavor might not be exposed by tasting it on its own.
I usually make nuoc cham the afternoon that I am serving it, to allow it a little time for the flavors to mesh. I will use that day’s nuoc cham for the following night as well if we are having leftovers, but I do not bother keeping it beyond that. Maybe I would if we had it frequently, but as much as I love Vietnamese food, there are way too many other cuisines I love as much to commit like that!
If you see the word bun on a Vietnamese menu or in a Vietnamese cookbook, the dish will be served with rice vermicelli and usually, at least in my experience, fresh veggies and herbs. According to Andrea Nguyen (in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen), rice vermicelli is much like Western pasta in that everyone will have their own preference as to how cooked they want it. With that in mind, I recommend you taste your noodles, starting at about the 2 minutes mark—most cookbooks call for between 3-4 minutes in boiling water. Do not salt the water. Do stir the noodles in the water, preferably with chopsticks (although I confess I rarely bother getting mine out), to encourage them to separate and not stick. Nguyen also has a great suggestion for when pouring the noodles into a colander—make sure it is large and invert a small heat-proof bowl at the bottom so that the noodles cannot clump down in the middle of the colander. Immediately rinse the noodles with running cold water. Mai Pham recommends doing this at least 30 minutes in advance and spreading the noodles out to let them dry. I compromise as counter space is at a premium right now, and I let the noodles sit in the colander for 30+ minutes. The point is that if the noodles dry out and get a little sticky (as opposed to slippery) they will absorb more nuoc cham.
Here are the veggies and herbs I serve my bun on, at least when I have access to good quality produce. Some I may leave out, quality depending. Some are traditional and some are more what I like—I have asterisked those I think are really traditional:
Nappa cabbage, shredded
Romaine lettuce (some form of lettuce is traditional, I also used some red baby lettuces for color tonight)*
Thai basil leaves*
Cucumber, cut into matchsticks*
Sweet bell pepper, thinly sliced
Mung bean sprouts*
And I always garnish with chopped roasted (but not salted) peanuts. The peanuts in particular complement the nuoc cham.
Bun Bo Shao (Lemongrass Beef on Cool Noodles (Bun))
Adapted from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, Mai Pham
1 lbs tender cut of beef, thinly sliced (such as sirloin)
2 stalks of lemongrass, the bottom 2-4 inches (the white part) grated on a microplane
2 T oyster sauce
1 T fish sauce
3 T peanut (or other vegetable) oil, divided into 1 T and 2 T
4 cloves of garlic, minced
Mix the first 3 ingredients, plus 1 tablespoon of oil. Marinate for 20-30 minutes. Heat a large frying pan or wok on high; add the 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the garlic and let it sizzle and become fragrant for a matter of seconds—it should become toasted but not burnt. Add the marinated beef and cook for 3-5 minutes until the meat is cooked through.
To serve, I pile the salad onto a plate, place a handful of noodles onto the salad, place some beef on top of that. I garnish the whole thing with chopped peanuts and then drizzle with the nuoc cham—I like a lot of nuoc cham, I can usually expect to find some pooling on the bottom of my plate when I am done.
I enjoyed this dish– all plates were cleaned– but my family agreed that the pork marinade that I have done is superior. So in the interest of selling you all on this wonderful dish, this is how I would do it with for pork tenderloin:
1 pork tenderloin, silver skin removed and sliced thinly on an angle to create longish strips
2 T Superior Dark soy sauce (Must be a Chinese superior dark, do not sub in a Japanese soy sauce, which is very tasty for what it was intended for, but not this)
2 stalks lemongrass, the lower white parts grated on a microplane
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 T fish sauce
2 T sugar
1 T peanut oil (or other vegetable oil)
Mix all of the above ingredients and let them marinate for 45 minutes or longer. Using a cast iron griddle or grill pan, grill the strips of pork until cooked through. If you want to get fancy, they can be threaded onto soaked bamboo skewers, but honestly, inside and at a family kitchen’s stove (as opposed to a roadside vendor grill) I found it easier to cook them sans skewers, using tongs to turn them. I use a pretty high heat—the marinade creates a wonderful caramelization on the pork—but make sure the strips of pork are thin enough to cook through quickly without burning the outside from the sugar. In a pinch you could probably use additional oil and stir fry as in the above recipe, but I think the cast iron grill (or an outside grill in the summer) creates an especially nice flavor.
Serve as described above.