I was first introduced to the wonderful cuisine of Vietnam while living outside of Washington, DC in the early 90s. So different from other Asian cuisines, but still similar. French influenced, but retaining enough of its simplicity to make it approachable. Spicy, salty, sour, sweet and herbaceous. Sadly, that restaurant in Arlington is no longer around. Sadder still is the fact that this cuisine hasn’t quite caught on in my home state of North Carolina. Last night, dinner took me there again…and reminded me why visiting Vietnam is on my bucket list.
While watching an episode of “Bizarre Foods”, I became intrigued with a new street food sampled by Andrew Zimmern while in Ho Chi MInh City. Bahn Trang Nuong is Vietnam’s answer to the street taco craze. I’ve been wanting to make them for a time because they present a new way to use the rice paper wrappers most commonly seen in the fresh rolls so popular in Vietnamese cuisine. My local Asian Market sells packages of the wrappers in large quantities. It takes months to use them up unless I make them for a party. Making Bahn Trang Nuong for dinner gives me an easy, delicious way to use them up. You can basically fill them with whatever suits your fancy, although the most traditional fillings are a thinly sliced protein, scallions, herbs and a quail egg. Mine are gluten-free and vegetarian. I filled them with smashed fresh baby peas, scrambled egg, scallions, and mint leaves and accompanied them with a classic Nuoc Cham for dipping. I cooked mine over fairly high heat in a cast iron skillet instead of grilling them outside as they do in Vietnam..(alas, my local weather was iffy). The wrappers soften first and then crisp up as they turn from translucent to white to slightly brown.
My main dish is Vietnamese Pork Chops, Thit Heo Nuong Xa, also cooked in my trusty cast iron skillet. The pork chops are marinated in fish sauce, sugar, lime, garlic and scallions and peppers. I added a tiny bit of shrimp paste to kick up the flavor even more. Make sure to squeeze with lots of lime juice and garnish with basil and mint!
Finally, a wonderful Du’a Chuat (I hope I got that right)…cucumber, carrot and radish salad. I have been making this refreshing salad for years, sometimes even sneaking it into a Thai meal because I love it so much! I like to top it with crushed peanuts and scallions.
The best thing about eating Vietnamese cuisine is that you feel satisfied afterward, but not full. This food hits all the right notes and I can’t wait for everyone to try it. As for me…Vietnam…someday!