One of the simplest Vietnamese restaurant dishes to make at home is Thit heo nuong xa, or Vietnamese lemongrass grilled pork chops. To make a nice banh mi, you don’t need special bread.
Contrary to what is required for pho, you do not need to spend hours creating a finely flavored broth. The most active time required to prepare this dish is around 30 minutes. For this dish, all you need is a nice, hot fire, some thinly sliced pork chops, some common marinade ingredients like shallots, lemongrass, garlic, sugar, pepper, and fish sauce, as well as two essential sides like steamed rice and sliced cucumber and a straightforward sauce to go with everything. And last but not the least, a mortar and a pestle.
Do I really need a mortar and pestle?
I know it sounds archaic, but trust me this pork chop is a pretty good reason why you need one. I am aware that some people are adamant about using particular appliances to prepare cuisine from a particular section of the world. I’m not one of those people, so when I advise purchasing a mortar and pestle, it’s because I genuinely believe it to be among the best and most useful kitchen tools you’ll ever own.
A mortar and pestle will amaze you with how handy and versatile it is. It may be used to crush small amounts of spices (far more effectively than an electric spice grinder), extract flavor from herbs for marinades or sauces, or aid in creating emulsions between vegetables and oil.
It’s a nearly vital tool for a marinade like this one, which is built on releasing flavor from moist aromatics. The cells of the lemongrass, shallots, and garlic are crushed as you grind them on the mortar’s rough stone surface, releasing their aromatic fluids. Compared to the slicing that takes place in a food processor, it is a quite different action. But if you find using the mortar and pestle much of a job, you can start the marinade with it then finish using a food processor to give a smoother texture. Although, for this dish a smooth texture is not a necessity. I actually quite enjoy the charred lemongrass shards that remain after the marinade has been roughly crushed.
I add fish sauce and a little oil after the aromatics, salt, and sugar have been reduced to a paste and mix everything together in a bowl before adding the pork chops.
Marinating and Preparing Thit Heo Nuong Xa
Due to its high salt content, the marinade acts as a brine, dissolving some of the pork’s muscular structure and allowing it to cook more moistly.
A half-hour or so in the marinade is enough to noticeably alter the flavor, but if you’re not in a hurry, up to overnight will result in pork chops with a silky, juicy texture that resembles a superb ham steak.
When I’m ready to cook, I place the chops on a grill over high heat (you could also use a grill pan indoors, but don’t anticipate getting the same smokey, charred flavor). I flip them several times to promote even browning.
For the Pork:
- 2 teaspoons whole white peppercorns, or 1 1/2 teaspoons ground white pepper
- 3 stalks lemongrass, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced m
- 1 small shallot, roughly chopped
- 4 medium-size cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1/3 cup palm sugar
- 1/4 cup (60ml) fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil
- 680g thin-cut pork chops, preferably blade end, with plenty of fat and marbling
For the Sauce:
- 1 recipe basic nuoc cham
- 1/4 cup very thinly julienned or grated carrot
- 1/4 cup very thinly julienned or grated daikon radish (optional)
- Pinch crushed red pepper flakes (preferably Thai or Vietnamese; optional)
- Steamed white rice
- Sliced cucumber
- To make the pork: If using whole white peppercorns, crush them in a mortar and pestle with salt until they are roughly crushed. To a rough paste, combine salt, lemongrass, shallot, garlic, palm sugar, and pre-ground white pepper (if using) in a mortar. You can either continue crushing by hand at this point or transfer the job to a food processor to finish.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the marinade, fish sauce, and vegetable oil. Turn the pork chops to coat all surfaces. Place the pork in a gallon-size zip-lock bag, press out the air, and seal. Marinate the pork at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours, turning once or twice. Alternatively, place in the refrigerator and marinate for up to 12 hours, turning once or twice.
- For the sauce: Prepare the nuoc cham according to the recipe, then add the carrot and daikon, if using, to the same bowl. If using, season with chile flakes to taste. Extra sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a month.
- Light one full chimney of charcoal. Pour out and arrange coals on one side of the charcoal grate once all of the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash. Set the cooking grate in place, cover the grill, and let it heat up for 5 minutes. Alternatively, on a gas grill, set half of the burners to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grill grate. Grill pork chops directly over high heat for 4 to 6 minutes, turning frequently and shifting to the cooler side of the grill if there are excessive flare-ups, until charred and just cooked through.
- Serve immediately with steaming white rice, cucumber slices, and sauce