Summertime in North America is the season of heat, watermelon, and family gatherings, and the perfect time to make and enjoy this refreshing and festive salad. The recipe was an original creation of Fatty Crab‘s Zekary Pelaccio and was written up by The New York Times, where we found it. Sweet and fluffy watermelon cubes tossed in an aromatic ginger cilantro dressing and tangy pickled watermelon rinds were coolly delicious contrasts against juicy roast pork belly. Spicy scallion, rau răm / Vietnamese coriander, and Thai basil completed this unusual salad that in its own way provided all the textural and flavor elements of gỏi (Vietnamese salad). The original recipe combined elements of Southern United States cuisine with spices and techniques chef Pelaccio encountered in Malaysia. We substituted his crispy fried pork belly for a star anise marinated roast pork that was more reminiscent of heo quay (roast pork), an ingredient associated with celebrations in Vietnam. We had no idea how one would classify a dish in which so many lineages were mixed together, but we felt perfectly at home serving and enjoying this salad out in the backyard with the rest of our family.
Nem is one of my favorite snacks. Before a trip back to Viet Nam, I usually contacted my uncle ahead of time so he could buy nem that would be ready to eat by the time I land. It’s an incredibly addictive food, with its mix of sweetness, sourness, and spiciness and the blend of flavors with rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), garlic and chili pepper.
I have been making a lot of nem chua lately. It’s often made with pork, but I actually prefer making it with beef (and hence the title is beef instead of pork). In the latest batch, I wrapped a ball of just mixed meat in
1) half of a lemon leaf and
2) 1-2 plum leaf(ves)
before wrapping it in 7 layers of banana leaves to let the meat ferment over a couple of days.
A pleasant surprise finding was that lemon leaf went incredibly well with nem chua. It really enhanced nem flavors. Plum leaves were too subtle to make a difference, unfortunately.
Anyway, just thought I should share this finding so you can add a little bit of lemon leaf (you don’t need a full or half a lemon leaf…a few thin strips will do) to your next bite of nem in addition to the usual rau răm, garlic and chili pepper.
This is definitely one of the few chicken dishes that I love: it’s very simple to make and the method preserves the flavor and juiciness of the chicken. I don’t ever want to boil a chicken again after knowing this recipe.
Before I go further into the step-by-step recipe, though, a warning: this is NOT the chicken that you get at Chinese BBQ shops (Chinese salt-steamed chicken where you cook the chicken in a salt shell) nor is it Hainanese chicken.
Without much further ado, here is the recipe with photos for the major steps:
1. Line a thick, large pot with aluminum foil. Be generous with the foil as you can use the remaining foil at the top to make a closed packet to keep the moisture in
2. Next, line the foil with coarse salt. The amount of salt used depends on the size of the pot. I used about ~1.5 bowl of salt this time, to completely cover the bottom of the pot
3. Then crush 6-8 lemongrass stalks, cut them into shorter length to fit in the pot. Lay the lemongrass stalks on the salt to form a lattice of sort.
4. Then lay lime leaves on top and in between the lemongrass stalks
5. Next add rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and ginger (optional). All the herbs should be laid down in such a way that the chicken will not come into contact with the coarse salt at the bottom
6. Then, stuff a few lá chanh (lime leaves) and a bunch of rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) inside the chicken, rub the skin with generous amount of salt and pepper, then lay the chicken on top of all the herbs
7. Cover the chicken with more herbs: lá chanh (lime leaves), rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) & ginger
8. Fold the aluminum foil sheet down to make a closed packet
9. Cover the pot and cook on medium high heat for ~35-40 minutes (depending on how hot your stove is, you might want to turn the heat down a bit after having it on medium high for 10-15′ to avoid burning the salt too much). Turn off the heat and leave it on the stove for another 10 minutes. Take it off the stove & open up the packet:
Remember to take the herb stuffing out of the chicken before serving.
The chicken can be cut into manageable pieces with a cleaver, or you can just dig in with your hands. The first time I made this chicken, I definitely couldn’t resist the urge to immediately tear off a thigh. It’s more fun to eat with your hands anyway :). If there’s still a lá chanh (lime leaf) left, it can be sliced into very thin strips and sprinkle on top of the chicken. This last step is not necessary because the chicken is already very fragrant with lá chanh (lime leaves) and rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) flavors.
Forgot to add a note about the chicken: it’s best if you use free-range chicken for this. Normal chicken from a supermarket might be ok. The thing you should avoid is frozen chickens that have been injected with saline. That type of chicken will mess up this dish because the saline fluid will ooze out and dissolve the salt, which will turn your dry-steamed chicken dish into salt-water boiled chicken. Definitely not appetizing.