Bún thịt nướng or grilled pork vermicelli salad is almost as ubiquitous as phở (beef soup with rice noodles and assorted veggies), in fact it’s common to find it sharing valuable menu space at phở restaurants. Although I tend to associate this dish with summer, grilling season, this is something that can be easily prepared throughout the year as the ingredients are readily available. The fresh quality of the veggie salad and lightness of the vermicelli really bring to mind sitting on the deck slurping away while the sunlight filters through the leaves bathing you in green. So when I’m hoping for the feeling of summer and the skies are stil grey grey grey, this dish isn’t a bad substitute at all. Traditionally the do chua, literally “sour things” served with this dish are julienned carrots and daikon but since I’ve got a never ending supply of pattypan squash you can fill in the blanks…. And while we’re on the subject of how traditional pattypan squash is, you’ll love the rice wine vinegar in the nước chấm (dipping sauce). Seriously though, I find it provides a nice balance of tangy-ness, smoothing out the sourness from the lime juice and sweetness of the sugar and honey that can be harsh if used by themselves. If you’ve eaten this in restaurants you may have noticed that the pork tends to be broiled rather than grilled and while that’s an acceptable alternative, I prefer the addition of the smoky flavor from the grill. Also, unless you have an industrial vent hood, broiling a fish sauce and garlic-based marinade inside your home may a little more pungent than you like your potpourri.
Things to make an easy dish even easier:
1) If you’re lucky enough to have an Asian market in your area, the choosing of a packet of rice noodles goes from picking up some skinny noodles to trying to decipher strange squiggly lines and blurry photos of food that don’t seem to resemble anything that you’re cooking. Color me surprised when I was out shopping with my mom and aunts and they all unanimously pointed at a package of bún chả giò (literally “spring roll vermicelli”) when I asked them which type of vermicelli to use for making bún thịt nướng. So, if you have a choice, look for the same type of vermicelli used for spring rolls, it’ll be thin enough to give you the right consistency to soak up all that tangy garlicky dipping sauce. If you can’t, somen (素麺), literally “fine white noodles” are Japanese wheat noodles that have a similar consistency to vermicelli.
2) How to pick daikon radish? Try to keep to ones that are no more than 2 inches in diameter as they can develop a sort of spicy bitterness as they age and get bigger. Otherwise, the usual applies, avoid wrinkly skin or bruising indicating an older specimen.
3) Is there a way to make this vegetarian? Sort of? While there is such a beastie as vegetarian fish sauce, nước mắm chay, it really doesn’t taste like fish sauce which makes sense since fish sauce only has the three ingredients (fermented anchovies, salt, and water). That being said, you could simply omit the fish sauce and substitute soy sauce in a 1:1 ratio. You will still get a tangy-savory dish but it won’t have that briny-ness. You can then substitute tempeh or firm tofu (which is dense enough to grill without falling apart) for the pork.
4) If you don’t have a grill or want to test out your vent hood, you can broil the pork in the oven for ~ 2 minutes on the highest oven rack. Since there’s sugar in the marinade and the pork is thinly sliced I’d stay close and check after the first minute is up just in case you have a really manly broiler.
Bún Thịt Nướng
1 lb pork butt, cut against the grain into 1/4 inch thick slices
3 tsp (3 cloves) minced garlic
1/2 shallot, minced
2 tbsp fish sauce (I prefer Three Crabs brand as it’s smoother/less harsh)
1 tbsp packed brown sugar
1 tbsp sake
1 tsp Sambal Oelek chili paste (optional, I like Huy Fong brand which has only chilis so it won’t change the flavor of your food)
Place a gallon-sized zip bag in a large mixing bowl, this way the bowl will keep any liquid contents in the bag from tipping over. Add garlic, shallot, fish sauce, brown sugar, sake, and Sambal Oelek to bag and seal. Squeeze bag to mix contents then add pork, seal, and mix with marinade. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes but no more than 8-10 hours otherwise the salt in the marinade will start to cure the meat making it tough.
Scrub and oil grill grate before grilling as the sugar in the marinade and the thinness of the pork slices make them pretty sticky. Grill pork slices over direct heat, red ashy coals, these slices are pretty thin so will cook very quickly ~ 45-60 seconds per side. Basically, I find that once I’ve filled the heated surface of the grill it’s time to flip the first pieces I’ve laid down. Set aside to put together vermicelli salad bowls.
1 head red leaf lettuce
1 bunch fresh mint ~ 15-20 sprigs
1 medium-sized cucumber, sliced in half and then into 1/2 inch by 4 inch spears
14 oz package vermicelli noodles
While grill is heating up, boil water in a large ~3 1/2-5 quart pot. Set timer for 2 minutes and add vermicelli noodles and stir frequently as they can get stuck together quite easily. Drain in a colander then transfer to a large bowl and fill with cold water. This will keep the noodles from sticking as well as stop them from overcooking and becoming mushy.
Rinse out the lettuce, removing leaves from core. Tear into bite-sized pieces. Arrange lettuce, mint, cucumber and pickles, removed from brining liquid (see below), in groups on a plate so people can serve themselves.
1/2 c white vinegar
1/2 c unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1/2 c water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp packed light brown sugar
1 carrot, peeled and julienned
1 small daikon (or 1 small pattypan squash if you’re crazy like me), peeled and julienned
Mix vinegars, water, salt, and sugar together in a large shallow tupperware until the sugar has dissolved. Add veggies making sure they are submerged in the pickling juice. Marinate at room temp for at least an hour or in the refrigerator overnight. (I like to do this step when I’m marinating the pork.) Since these are quick pickles with a lower salt and acid content they’ll keep about a 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator.
Nước Chấm (dipping sauce)
2 tbsp nước mắm (fish sauce)
1/2 c unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp packed light brown sugar
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp (1 clove) minced garlic
1/2-1 tsp Sambal Oelek (depending on how spicy you like it)
Mix all ingredients together in a sterile swing bottle in the refrigerator where it will keep for 2-3 months.) Although this is referred to as “dipping sauce” and is usually used as such, like with spring rolls, in this instance, the sauce is usually just poured into your bowl acting as a sauce for the noodles and a pseudo-vinaigrette for the salad. I usually add ~ 1 tbsp per bowl and let people add more to taste. I like to put 2/3 cup of noodles with 3-4 pieces of pork, 1/2 c lettuce, a cucumber spear, a sprig of mint, and an ounce of pickles per bowl giving you a little of everything or SE Asian summer in a bowl🙂 Makes 6 servings.