Nem Chua is the Vietnamese rendition of a well-known Southeast Asian cured-pork recipe.It is acidic, salty, and bursting with the funky, spicy, and fragrant aromas of raw garlic, bird’s eye chillies, and both black and white peppercorns. For this recipe, Lean slices of pork and cooked rind are the major ingredients, and garlic and hot peppers are used as garnishes.
Nem chua, whether it is served rolled into small logs, cut into squares, or wrapped in tropical leaves, manages to satisfy almost all of our cravings for flavor: lactic acid’s sourness; sugar’s mild sweetness; raw garlic’s bite; sufficient saltiness; the floral and funky flavors of black and white pepper; and a healthy dose of raw-chili heat.
Nem Chua’s geographical range extends beyond just Vietnam; it also touches Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. In the latter two nations, the recipe also includes cooked sticky rice in the mixture, and the name of the finished product is often written as naem (or occasionally Nam).
In my opinion Nem Chua ranks among the top ten cuisines from Vietnam.
For those who are unfamiliar with the dish Nem Chua, it can be compared to charcuterie. It is simply cured meat or dry salami.
While the traditional method of creating Nem Chua entails letting the ground pork combination fester naturally outdoors for a few days, the “modernized” method uses a store-bought curing packet that shortens the timeline to only 24 hours and significantly lowers variability between batches. The curing mix is explicitly marketed as “nam powder” by one of the most well-known brands, Lobo (which I highly recommend).
The following two key components, glucose and dextrose, which are just different names for the same molecule, make the finished product sweeter. While bacterial fermentation is not possible with this recipe’s rapid nem chua procedure, these kinds of sweets “offer an easy fermentation substrate for microorganisms to nibble on” when used in longer curing processes.
Quality Meat Sourcing and Safety
All the food scientists I spoke to emphasized the importance of food safety, sanitation, and the use of high-quality meats in the preparation of the meal, despite the fact that the method for creating nem chua with packet seasoning is quite controlled.
Given that the meat is not fully cooked, there is the possibility of trichinosis when using pork for nem chua, however this can be avoided if the pork is chemically tested for trichinosis, or frozen at precise temperature and time regimes to kill the trichinosis. Beef might be a better alternative, but it still carries a microbiological risk, much as eating beef tartare.
In order to obtain the best meat possible, I advise developing a relationship with your neighborhood butcher. When making nem chua, use the leanest cut of pork (or, optionally, beef) available because fattier cuts have a tendency to go rancid more rapidly.
- 900g boneless pork loin or tenderloin
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon whole white peppercorns
- 110g package cooked pork skin, roughly chopped
- 7 medium-size cloves minced fresh garlic, plus thinly sliced garlic cloves for garnish
- 4 red bird’s eye chilies, stemmed and minced, plus thinly sliced chili rounds for garnish
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 packet (70g) nam powder (including smaller packet of salts inside the main packet)
- Use parchment paper to cover a baking sheet. Trim the pork loin of as much fat as you can using a sharp knife; measure out 590g of the trimmed meat; save any extra for another use (such as a stir fry or ground pork). Slice the trimmed pork into slices that are about 2 inches long, then spread them out on the baking sheet. Freeze for 15-20 minutes, or until very stiff but not completely frozen.
- If using a meat grinder, chill the meat grinder parts in the freezer for 1-2 hours before processing. Pork should be ground into a clean work bowl using the second-smallest grinding die. Switch to the finest die and grind pork into a medium-large mixing bowl once more.
- If using a food processor, pulse the meat for 2 minutes, working in batches to prevent filling the machine more than halfway with each batch. Put the meat in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
- Grind black and white peppercorns to a fine powder in a spice grinder. Add ground peppercorns, prepared pork skin, minced garlic, minced chilies, sugar, and salt to pork. Mix well with a clean gloved hand or a clean spatula.
- Add the curing packet (be sure to also add the contents of the smaller packet inside the main packet). Using a gloved hand, thoroughly combine all ingredients by grabbing handfuls of the mixture, squishing it in your palm, and repeating for about 5 minutes, or until the entire mixture has taken on a sticky, paste-like consistency.
- To Make Square-Shaped Nem Chua, follow these steps: Wrap plastic wrap around an 8-inch square baking dish. Smooth the nem chua mixture into an even layer in the pan with a spatula. Set 1 raw garlic slice and 1 chopped round of bird’s eye chile into the surface every 2 inches (you want these garnishes to top each square when you cut the nem chua). Refrigerate nem chua for at least 24 hours and up to 1 week, covered with plastic wrap and pressed firmly against the surface.
- For Nem Chua in a sausage shape: Place a square of plastic wrap measuring 12 by 12 inches on the work surface.Onto the center of the plastic wrap, spoon about 55g of the nem chua mixture. Use your hands to shape the nem chua mixture into a smooth log that is approximately 6 inches long and 1 ¼ inches thick by folding plastic wrap over it first.
- Along the length of the log, remove the plastic wrap and alternately add slices of raw garlic and chilies. Re-roll the plastic wrap to create an even cylinder shape, then carefully fold it over the nem chua log. To eliminate as much air from the mixture as possible, make sure to squeeze gently as you do this. To create a tightly wound cylinder of uniform thickness, twist the plastic wrap’s ends in opposite directions.
- Then, chill the nem chua logs for at least 24 hours and as long as 1 week before slicing them into oblong rounds and eating them. Repeat with the remaining nem chua mixture.