1 1/2 lbs. twice ground lean pork (I use trimmed pork tenderloin and have the butcher do the grind)
 
2/3 head of garlic (ground to paste in a food processor) You can roast this in an oven first and just paste by hand with a pinch of smoked salt to add an additional depth of flavor.
 
1/3 head of garlic thinly sliced for garnish
 
2 tbs white peppercorns
 
2-3 thai chilies
 
1 tsp aji panca or amarillo powder
 
1 1/2 tbs pomegranate molasses
 
3 tbs sugar
 
1 bag nem/nam seasoning (salt/nitrate seasoning mix for curing)
 
8 oz. Bi (cooked pork skin)
 
 
 

Nem Chua

baby red pepper co. 2/3/16
Between early 1993 and the end of 1995, I had the opportunity to make two trips to Vietnam, ultimately spending  a total of 12 months living in the Central Highlands. Based in DaLat, an old French regional capital and two small hamlets higher in the hills, I lived fairly immersive and worked alongside locals improving an orphanage in exchange for bedspace. I spent weeks touring the South, as well as side trips to Ankor Wat in Cambodia.
 
I quickly embraced a Vietnamese diet, sampling street food at every opportunity. For a chilihead, there is nothing quite like a steaming meal-size bowel of unctuous Pho piled high with fresh herbs and chilies. I was satisfied with Pho five days a week. I became obsessed with Pho. I remain so to this day... but that's another story.
 
The Vietnamese diet is a paradise of healthy protein, fresh fruits, and straight-from-the garden vegetables. Herbs are likely snipped from right outside the backdoor.  The climate in Dalat is 60-70 F with ample rainfall, pretty much Spring year-round. 
 
Among the street foods I became addicted to were shoeleather stiff planks of dried squid slathered in sambals, salads of fresh vegetables and grilled meat,  and cured meats. Among the cured meat, Nem Chua, palm sized balls of pickled pork, garlic, and fresh chilies wrapped in packets of banana leaves stood out. I first encountered Nem Chua in the kiosks lining Hoa Bihn Square in DaLat. Nem Chua is a wonderment of sour, tart, salty pork with a sausage like texture. I fondly remember many lunches of nem chau, and green papaya salad topped with bits of cured beef (go du du bo). 
 
Upon return to Chicago, I settled just northwest of the Argyle Street neighborhood. This is a bustling area nestled around the the Red Line L-station. Argyle is lined with Vietnamese restaurants and food stores, including two butchers who produced outstanding Nem Chua. Life was good.
 
Years later, living in the suburbs I could manage only an occassional trip to Argyle to get my Nem Chua fix.  Fortunately,  I could find the nam seasoning for curing the  pork and the frozen packages of Bi (rendered pork skin) necessary to make it in the Argyle stores. I begged off making Nem Chua until I discovered a recipe from the Ravenous Couple at www.ravenouscouple.com . After the first couple batches, I dropped an added twist or two into the mix. I think the aji powder and pom molasses add a bit of complexity in the background, but you can omit it as it isn't authentic. Dressing with a pinch of smoked salt is a nice touch as is a drizzle of flavored balsamic or chili-infused sesame oil.
 
If you can't find the Nam seasoning mix, try www.templeofthai.com or other online stores. Lobo brand is common. You should be able to locate the Bi in the frozen cases of a good Vietnmese/Asian grocery store.
  1. Defrost the Bi, rinse in lukewarm water and sqeeze thoroughly to wring out residual moisture. Allow to air dry on a plate.
  2. Crack slightly, then soak the peppercorns in warm water for 10 minutes and drain.
  3. For the pork, have your butcher twice grind to a very fine mince. Do not scrimp on this and use an ultra lean cut like trimmed tenderloin. 
  4. Mix the Bi, pork, minced garlic (reduced to a paste), pom molasses, 3 minced thai chiles, cracked peppercorns and nem seasoning in a bowl. Use gloves, you'll need them.
  5. Continue by kneading the meat mix until its is quite sticky and  of a uniform pate consistency.
  6.  Line a small baking dish with plastic wrap and pack the mixture down tightly, wrapping completely in plastic wrap. At this point I use a large bag of dry beans to weigh down the top uniformly.
  7. Allow to sit in the refrigerator for 30-36 hours.
  8. Remove from the pan, unwrap and cut into small (business card sized) serving portions, topping with a slice of garlic and thai chile.
  9. You can also grill the pieces lightly over a high heat hardwood charcoal grill to develop a nice set of grill marks/char.  Eat it grillside, a wonderful way to socialize. The smoky aroma is reminiscent of a typical Vietnames street filled with food stalls.
  10. Individually wrapped slices can be kept for up to a week in the refrigerator.
If you have access to banana leaves, you can wrap individual balls about double the size of a golf ball around slices of garlic and chiles. Lay two strips cut from leaves crosswise, placing the ball in the center and wrap. Alternatively intrleave each strip over the other as you go.  Repeat a second time with a slight rotation rto ensure atigh, complete covering. Tie the bundles with thin strips of leaves. This is the way you see them in store fronts all over Vietnam, hanging in  clusters from posts.