Elsewhere on this blog, I have expressed my love and adoration of Vietnamese food. Although I have the ridiculous habit of ordering pho in every country I’ve ever visited, Vietnamese bún dishes are actually my favorites. These dishes represent everything I love about Vietnamese cuisine. The contrast between raw and cooked ingredients, the juxtaposition of clean and simple flavors against the pungent and sharp, and the fact that no two bites are the same! The only problem with a good bún dish is they only seem simple. Making them happen at home can be complicated. So, what you see here is not just a bowl of Vietnamese Caramelized Pork paired with a Rice Noodle Salad. No, what you see here is a personal triumph a long time coming.
Bún dishes are comprised of a tangle of rice vermicelli topped with fresh herbs, bean sprouts, and other raw vegetables. Generally, bún dishes come with some sort of grilled meat or seafood, a spring roll, and a side of Nước chấm. Seems easy enough, right? I can make skewers of meat, I know my way around a marinade, and I can certainly cook rice noodles with the utmost of ease. But as with most things, when it comes to bún dishes, the devil is in the details.
I have made countless recipes from books, blogs and YouTube videos to varying and often middling results. And my failures, I can safely say, are generally due to my laziness. I have committed numerous culinary sins that have inhibited the flavor of my bún dishes in the past. But no more! This recipe for Vietnamese Caramelized Pork & Rice Noodle Salad is one for the ages.
The neat thing about screwing up so often and so thoroughly is now I know what is essential to making a satisfying bún dish at home. What good is screwing up if you can’t spare others from similar blunders, so here are my golden rules for at-home bún dish success:
- Regular basil is never a stand-in for Thai basil. Never.
- Don’t skimp on the fish sauce in the Nước chấm. The lime juice will even out the funkiness, so don’t worry about it.
- Peanuts should always be included.
- Make the Vietnamese Caramel. Don’t substitute it with honey or brown sugar. It’s worth the extra step.
- Brush the meat with the Vietnamese Caramel multiple times throughout the grilling process. It makes for the best flavor and texture.
- Smash your lemongrass beyond all recognition.
Now, if you’ve wandered into my About section, you know I’m definitely not Vietnamese. Heck, I haven’t even been to Vietnam. So, please take my guidance on this matter with a grain of salt. These are bits of info I’ve picked up along the way. And the recipe below is me attempting to create the Vietnamese Caramelized Pork bún dish of my ignorant white girl dreams. I have no idea how authentic it is and certainly mean no disrespect towards those who have grown up eating and cooking Vietnamese cuisine. I’m just a huge fan girl. Pay no attention to me.
Having said that, I will say I have eaten a fair amount Vietnamese food in my beloved city of Toronto. And, I think, what I’ve put together here is at least in the ball park of what I’ve experienced at my local Vietnamese joints. So, if you’re a fan of Vietnamese cuisine, I think you’ll be pleased with this relatively simple recipe for Vietnamese Caramelized Pork & Rice Noodle Salad.
One last thing, this recipe makes a ton of food, so maybe invite some friends over? I think this is a great summer meal built for sharing.
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 tablespoon demerara sugar
- 2 red chilies, thinly sliced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 4 pork blade steaks, bones removed & sliced thin
- 2 shallots, peeled
- 2 stalks lemongrass, tough outer leaves removed
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Vietnamese caramel
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- Fresh ground pepper
- 8 bamboo skewers, soaked overnight
- 1 (454 g) package rice noodles uncooked (rice vermicelli is traditional, but I used Bahn Pho because I like a wider noodle)
- 3 medium carrots, peeled & julienned
- 3-4 Persian cucumbers, cut into chunks
- 1 cup fresh bean sprouts
- 1/2 cup roasted salted peanuts, roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup whole mint leaves, tightly packed
- 1/4 cup whole Thai basil leaves, tightly packed
- Pour sugar into a dry skillet and place over medium heat. Cook until the sugar melts and turns amber.
- Add the water and whisk constantly until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Transfer to a Mason jar and set aside.
- Place all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until the sugar dissolves.
- Cover and refrigerate for at 2 hours or, for best results, overnight.
- Place pork in a large resealable bag.
- Place shallots, lemongrass, garlic, sunflower oil, and lime juice in a large food processor and pulse until it forms paste. Add the paste to the bag.
- In a small bowl, whisk the soy sauce, Vietnamese caramel, fish sauce and black pepper together. Pour the mixture over the pork and seal the bag.
- Shake the bag to coat the pork in the marinade. Open and force the air out, then reseal and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight.
- Thread the marinated pork slices onto the bamboo skewers like accordions. Place smaller pieces of pork in the center of the skewers to ensure even-cooking.
- Heat a cast iron griddle or a BBQ grill until smoking. Add the skewers and reduce the heat to medium. Rotate and brush the pork with additional caramel sauce every 3 minutes until the meat is firm but tender and caramelized - about 9-12 minutes.
- Cook noodles according to the package directions, then rinse in cold water and transfer to a large bowl.
- Top with carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts, peanuts, mint leaves and basil leaves. Toss to disperse. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Divide the rice noodle salad amongst several bowls.
- Top the salad with 2 skewers and serve alongside a small bowl of nuoc cham. The nuoc cham can be poured over the salad or used for dipping, if you prefer.
- Garnish the salad with additional red chilies, if you want extra spice.