As a first-generation Vietnamese growing up in Australia, my fondest childhood memories are of family gatherings that feature mum's nem nướng — barbecue skewers of fatty ground pork.
Mum's version mirrors many hot, sticky meat sticks that are sold along the coast of Ninh Hòa, a small beach town in Vietnam's south-central coast. Ninh Hòa is hugged by sand and sea and has little noise pollution, thanks to its absenteeism from global travel guides and its community's low-key existence.
Utter the words 'nem nướng' to any Vietnamese butcher and they'll fix you up with a slab of pork shoulder ground together with an extra bit fat. In Ninh Hòa, the meat for the skewers is made using 'hot meat' pork from a fresh slaughter. Hunks of the pork's own fat are incorporated into minced meat, which has been spiked with garlic, sugar and fish sauce and pounded vigorously to encourage extra bounce in each bite.
What differentiates Ninh Hòa's nem nướng from the versions that are popular at Australian Vietnamese restaurants is that it doesn't come in a bowl of vermicelli with watery nước chấm. Instead, it comes in rice paper rolls, along with nước chấm nem nướng — a gruel made from sticky rice, toasted dried prawns, shallots and garlic.
As children, my sisters and I would sit together at the dinner table to watch mum demonstrate the right way to prepare a roll.
Eager to impress, we'd follow suit, placing a cylinder of meat on wet rice paper before lining it with a bed of herbs, lettuce, cucumber, green mango and a thin stick of fried rice paper.
We'd plunge our creations into bowls of deep-yellow nước chấm nem nướng whose flavours are amplified tenfold by a spoonful of măm kẹo — a spicy and sticky fish sauce.
Our faces would brim with smiles every time a tasty vessel was transported safely and intact to the docks of our mouths.
Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @phidani. Photographs by Dan Tran.
Nem nướng Ninh Hòa (Ninh Hòa-style grilled pork skewers)
Makes: 25–28 rolls
Nem nướng (barbecue pork skewers)
- 1 kg ground pork shoulder
- 50 g ground pork fat
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled, pounded with a mortar and pestle
- 4 tbsp fish sauce
- 4 tbsp raw sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp white pepper
- 3 tbsp canola (or any neutral oil) to coat your hands
- 25–28 bamboo skewers
- 2 tbsp honey
- ½ cup water, boiled
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
Fried rice paper sticks
- 8 rice paper sheets (approximately 22 cm in diameter) cut with scissors into 4 equal parts
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup canola oil (or any neutral oil) to fry
Nước chấm nem nướng (barbecue pork skewer dipping sauce)
- ½ cup glutinous rice, washed and rinsed
- 1 litre cold water
- 50 g dried prawn, soaked in water for an hour, drained and rinsed
- 2 tbsp canola oil (or any neutral oil)
- 100 g shallots, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 5 tbsp canola oil (or any neutral oil)
- 3 tsp whole annatto seeds
- 4 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp of raw sugar
Nước mắm kẹo (sticky fish sauce)
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 12 bird's eye chilli
- 2 tbsp raw sugar
- 1½ tbsp fish sauce
Rau sống (vegetables to wrap)
- 25–28 rice paper sheets (approximately 22 cm in diameter)
- 600 g Vietnamese lettuce (or butterhead, or romaine) with leaves separated
- 150 g green mango, sliced lengthways into thin strips
- 400 g Lebanese cucumbers, sliced lengthways into thin wedges
- 200 g mint leaves
- 100 g garlic chives
- 100 g coriander (optional)
- 200 g purple perilla leaves (optional)
1. To make the nem nướng, ask your butcher to finely ground 1 kg of pork shoulder together with 50 g of fat. Regular pork mince that is at least 20 per cent fat will also suffice.
2. Place all nem nướng ingredients in a large bowl and work the mixture together with your hands. Lift the outer edges of the mince and fold over and towards the centre of the bowl, pushing down until your hands touch the bottom. Rotate the bowl 90 degrees and repeat the fold, doing so for 3 minutes. This will give a slight bounce to the meat once cooked.
3. Cover your bowl of mince with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
4. To skewer the meat, soak the bamboo skewers in water for an hour to prevent them from catching fire on the grill. Lightly coat your hands with oil and grab a small handful of mince (roughly 3 tbsp) and wrap it around a skewer, making sure it covers a little more than ¾ of the stick. Aim to make them 1½ to 2 cm in diameter to ensure they cook evenly without drying out.
5. Coat the finished nem nướng skewers with a bit of oil before setting them down to prevent sticking.
6. To make the honey glaze, combine all the ingredients together in a bowl and stir until the honey and salt dissolve.
7. Cook the nem nướng over hot coal, a gas barbecue or grill pan can also be used in place of a charcoal barbecue. After 3 minutes, turn the skewer and glaze generously with honey glaze. Turn the sticks again after 2 minutes, glaze generously and turn over once more. Grill for a further 30 seconds before removing the skewers from the coal. Keep the skewers wrapped in aluminium foil until you are ready to serve.
8. To make fried rice paper sticks use rice paper made with both rice flour and tapioca flour.
9. Pour water onto a plate, using it to lightly wet both sides each rice paper, transferring it onto a dry surface. Allow 30 seconds for the sheet to soften before lightly rolling it together to form straws. Place the straws onto a drying rack and set aside to dry for at least 4 hours or overnight.
10. Heat 1 cup of oil in a saucepan over moderately high heat until it reaches 185°C. You could also test if the oil is ready by dipping your chopsticks or tongs into the oil looking out for emerging tiny bubbles on the utensil. Fry 3–4 rice paper sticks at a time until golden yellow, approximately 30 seconds. Drain the oil by placing the fried sticks on a plate lined with paper towels.
11. To make nước chấm nem nướng blitz your glutinous rice in a food processor, stopping once it's granular or a little larger than the size coarsely cracked pepper. Add to a pot filled with 1 litre of cold water, stir constantly and cook on high heat until the contents is brought to a boil.
12. Reduce the heat to bring the pot down to a gentle simmer, cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid the glutinous rice from clumping and burning at the base. At this point, it will resemble a gruel.
13. Blitz the dried prawns in a food processor until they're roughly the size of rice grains. Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a pan, add the prawns and sauté. Once they're golden yellow and aromatic, add the prawns to the pot of gruel and mix well. Keep the pot on a gentle simmer for 20 minutes, stirring it occasionally.
14. In a small saucepan placed on medium heat, bring 5 tbsp of oil and annatto seeds to a gentle simmer for 90 seconds. Strain the oil, discarding the seeds.
15. Pour annatto oil into a pan, add shallots and sauté for 1 minute before adding garlic. Sauté for 2 minutes or until aromatic. Add the mixture to the rice gruel along with fish sauce and raw sugar. Keep the pot on a gentle simmer, occasionally stirring for a further 30 minutes before turning off the heat.
16. To make nước mắm kẹo, place garlic and bird's eye chilli in a mortar and pestle and pound to a rough paste. Add raw sugar and fish sauce and mix until dissolved.
17. To serve, arrange your rau sống (vegetables to wrap) on a serving plate and place on the table together with nem nướng, fried rice paper sticks, nước mắm kẹo, rice paper and a bowl of warm water to dunk the rice paper sheets into.
18. Ladle nước chấm nem nướng into individual serving bowls, add a spoonful or more of nước mắm kẹo depending on how spicy and well seasoned you prefer your sauce.
19. To assemble your rolls, prepare the rice paper as per its instruction on the packaging. Place your wet rice paper sheet on a ceramic plate or wooden board. Keeping to ⅓ of the sheet, add herbs, vegetables, mango, a piece of nem nướng removed from its skewer and a fried rice paper stick. Fold over and roll tightly like a burrito, fold the sides of the rice paper over to prevent the sauce from trickling down your arms later on.
19. Dunk your final product into the nước chấm nem nướng and enjoy immediately.
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