You know that awkward stage when you’ve just started dating someone and you go over to their parents’ place for dinner? Everyone’s smiling and making small talk about the weather and you’re basically worried about sounding coherent and likeable at the SAME TIME? Well, one of the first times I went over to Mike’s family’s house, his mom prepared a massive Vietnamese feast. Luckily, it didn’t end in tears, like the time we all ate spring rolls together.
Mike had told his mom beforehand that I love Vietnamese food. Which is true. The thing about Vietnamese food, as I’ve learned over the years, is that it can be pretty family specific. Some families will roll their salad rolls in their hands, some will use a plate and some will let their mom roll everything before they even make it to the table. In Mike’s family’s case, they grill their protein at the table (using a handy indoor grill), dip their rice paper into steaming bowls of water and wrap up their rolls on plates. Basically, it’s a grill it, assemble it, roll it, eat it sort of thing, all at the kitchen table.
On this particular evening we were sitting down to grill lemongrass beef for salad rolls (or Summer rolls, or Spring rolls or fresh rolls). On the table, there were the usual suspects, a giant bowl of fish sauce (ruby red from an absurd amount of chilis), a second bowl of fish sauce (specifically made for me with fewer chilis), vegetables, the raw meat, herbs and a HUGE bowl of vermicelli.
This was my first time having salad rolls that didn’t come pre-wrapped in saran and I wasn’t too sure what went where, so I just followed along. Side note: don’t ever let a Vietnamese person fool you into thinking that your salad rolling skills don’t matter. They do. They’re over there, expertly rolling vegetables, meat and whatever else into incredibly tissue thin rice paper rounds watching you to literally see HOW YOU ROLL. Luckily, I have a lot of experience rolling spring rolls for my mom, so my rolling action is excellent.
Anyway, the Le family way of rolling goes like this: put a bunch of meat on the grill. Dip your round rice paper into a shallow bowl of hot water. Place it on your plate. Start layering on vegetables and herbs. Top with meat, roll and dip. I didn’t see any vermicelli enter the equation, so I just went with it. After about six or seven rolls, my curiosity got the better of me so I asked Mike what it was for.
Me (in a whisper): So, what’s the vermicelli for?
Mike: Oh, that’s for you.
Me (still whispering): What do you mean, it’s for me?
Mike: My mom thinks all non-Vietnamese people like vermicelli in their rolls.
Me: Hmm…that is true, all the other rolls I’ve eaten have had vermicelli in them.
Mike (laughing): Well you better get rolling. She totally expects you to eat all of that.
I wasn’t sure if Mike was joking or not, but I didn’t know his mom well enough to not eat the intended-for-me-vermicelli, so I had a go at it. It wasn’t hard, at least at the beginning. I was hungry and the rolls with the vermicelli were delicious. But twenty rolls later, everyone was slowing down and I had yet to make a noticeable dent in the noodles.
Me: Everything is delicious!
Mike’s mom: You don’t like the vermicelli?
Me: No, no, I LOVE the vermicelli!
Mike’s mom: You didn’t eat any vermicelli.
Me: I did! But I’m getting quite full.
Awkward silence. Luckily, Mike came to the rescue and told his mom that’d we’d take the vermicelli home. I fried it up the next day with the leftover lemongrass beef and it was delicious.
I love vermicelli, but I love quinoa just as much. So, when the thought of a giant bowl of vermicelli is just too much, go with this quinoa bowl. It’s light and tasty and the texture kind of reminds me of another Vietnamese favourite, broken rice. Quinoa is fantastic in salads, so it’s no surprise that it’s delicious as a substitute for the noodles in a bún bowl. Bún are super simple affairs: vermicelli, a bunch of herbs and vegetables, a protein and a whole lot of fish sauce to pour on top.
My protein of choice are definitely these lemongrass pork meatballs. They’re super quick: just mix all of the ingredients together gently, shape and bake! You could pan fry them on the stove, but popping them in the oven gives you some time to prepare all your vegetables or do a quick wash up. They’re juicy and flavourful on their own, but throw them in a bún bowl and you’re gold.
Lemongrass Pork Meatball Recipe
makes 18 meatballs
- 1 pound lean ground pork
- 1/2 cup panko
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons finely minced lemongrass
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1/4 onion, finely diced
- 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/4 cup sliced green onions
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Gently mix together all of the ingredients and shape into 1 inch meatballs, about 2 tablespoons each. Space out on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Turn the heat up to broil and broil for 5 minutes for a bit of color. Remove from the oven and enjoy on your quinoa bowl, with vermicelli, on a sandwich, or on their own.
Nuoc Mam/Fish Sauce Vinaigrette Recipe
makes about 1 cup dressing
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 Thai chili, if desired
- 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- juice of 1/2 lime
- 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
Crush the garlic, chili and sugar together with a mortar and pestle until the garlic and chili are crushed. Add the sugar, garlic and chili to the water and mix well. Add the lime juice, mix and then stir in the fish sauce. Set aside in the fridge until needed. If you have the foresight, make this the day before and let the flavors meld overnight.
Quinoa Bun Bowl
- 2 cups cooked quinoa
- 2 cups shredded lettuce of choice (I used iceberg)
- 1/2 cup shredded carrots
- 1 small cucumber, sliced
- cilantro sprigs
- fish sauce vinaigrette, to taste
Build your bowls: put one cup of quinoa in each bowl and top lettuce, shredded carrots, sliced cucumbers, cilantro and mint. Add meatballs and serve with fish sauce vinaigrette on the side. Add fish sauce vinaigrette to taste and enjoy.