Hue, Vietnam’s Imperial capital, is one of my favourite places to eat in Vietnam. Famous for dishes that set them apart from other regional cuisines in the country (they are relatively small in their serving size and feature refined presentation), these dishes are a vestige of the country’s royal cuisine. One of the Emperors of the Purple Forbidden City demanded 50 dishes cooked by 50 chefs, served by 50 different servants at each meal.
The Bun Thit Nuong at Huyen Anh, on the Perfume River, is one dish that sums up the essence of what made me fall in love with Vietnamese food. It’s essentially a dish of soft fresh noodle, grilled pork, rice paddy herbs, chilli, shredded banana blossom and fish sauce, but it is so much more!
This is a street food dish that is created with such love, care and understanding, it allows each individual ingredient its own space, all the while singing in harmony.
This dish is made up of three components: the pork marinade, the noodle salad and its dressing (Nuoc Cham).
12 skewers of marinated pork neck (see recipe for marinade below) 12 long bamboo skewers soaked in water to stop burning
30g minced lemongrass
15g minced garlic
30g minced onion
5g freshly ground black pepper
50ml fish sauce
400g rice vermicelli noodles
100g mixed Vietnamese herbs
Vietnamese mint, spearmint, rice paddy herb, Thai basil and coriander*
2 small cucumbers cut into batons
100g bean sprouts
16 cherry tomatoes
200ml Nuoc Cham (see recipe below)
30g crispy fried shallots
8 small butter lettuce, well washed
30g roasted peanuts
500g pork neck cut into thin ribbons
Nuoc Cham – dressing for salad
150ml warm water
85ml lemon juice
150ml fish sauce*
1 long red chilli, finely sliced
Marinate ribbons of pork in remaining ingredients overnight. Thread the pork onto the skewers in an even thickness, like a satay. Coat the meat with the marinade again.
Grill the skewers over open coals until well cooked, crispy and charred. In the meantime, arrange the salad into individual bowls – noodles, cucumber, tomatoes, herbs and lettuce – lay the hot skewers over the noodles and dress with the Nuoc Cham, scatter over the crispy fried shallots and the peanuts.
For the salad dressing, dissolve sugar in warm water, add lemon juice, fish sauce and chilli. Taste. Balance flavours with more sugar, more lemon or more fish sauce.
Most Vietnamese grocers sell a handy little ‘mixed bunch’ of herbs that is perfect for this recipe. Ask your grocer. Look out, however, for the fish mint, it’s an acquired taste (right up there with durian) and is usually included in this bunch. You may notice that there are five herbs in this bunch. Five is a very important number in Vietnamese cooking, as dishes often contain five spices or five colours. This represents the five elements – metal, wood, fire, earth and water – and is a principle of Vietnamese cuisine to stimulate the five senses.
We use a fish sauce from Phu Quoc, the home of the world's best Nuoc Mam, called 3 Crab brand. The fish sauce should be labelled Nuoc Mam Nhi; this means it is the first pressing or equivalent of the 'extra virgin' of fish sauce. When selecting good fish sauce, the sauce should be crystal clear, deeply golden but not too dark and should create large bubbles when shaken, this indicates a viscous and rich sauce.