Editor’s note: The author, preferring the byline Jordy Comes Alive, comes from the U.S. and has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for three years. He is a big fan of local food after spending time wandering around local alleys and markets to discover the culinary scene.
His piece has been titled and edited by Tuoi Tre News.
It was a beautiful Saigon day as I strolled the canals in my neighborhood blasting Vinahouse music (Vietnamese club music) through my headphones.
I was deep in thought pondering my next meal, I was hungry (but I’m always hungry), it's just a matter of different degrees of hunger and hankering. It seems my cravings start slowly, subconsciously, and quickly blooming into uncontrollable urges. I knew I was in the mood for meat but was unsure how I wanted it served up.
I was heading toward Phan Van Han Street in Binh Thanh District, walking along Dien Bien Phu Street and slowly pacing myself among the zooming bikes flying by in every direction.
The highway-like street is lined with a variety of food vendors hawking their wares for early evening commuters to pull over and grab a to-go meal or make a pit stop between their comings and goings.
Off in the distance, I spied a massive amount of silver smoke near the corner of my street. I was far enough away where I couldn't make out the cause of the smoke but it seemed to beckon at me like a smoke signal casting a secret message.
As I approached closer, I caught a whiff and then instantly slipped into a trance-like zombie state. Somebody was grilling up something tasty, something meaty and I began to drool staggering forward.
As the smoke began to dissipate, there stood a tiny old woman in pajamas assisted by what I assume was her granddaughter adorned in a matching outfit. They were surrounded by customers, the older woman bagging food to go as the younger girl was rushing from table to table serving customers. That's family teamwork at its best.
She was a new vendor on my block and seemed to have appeared out of nowhere -- as if she had risen out of the aromatic smoke. To my delight, she was selling bò nướng lá lốt, mỡ chài -- a fun meaty dish that can be eaten as a snack or a full-blown meal.
|A photo captures a stall selling 'bò nướng lá lốt' and 'bò nướng mỡ chài' along a street in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
I was ravenous and required satisfaction. Bò nướng lá lốt, mỡ chài is hard to pass up so I took a seat at a table.
Let us get into what bò nướng lá lốt, mỡ chài is and what it is all about. Let me break down the name of the dish so we can assemble it back together into one incredibly delicious meal. Ready?
Bò nướng in this dish is marinade and seasoning beef sausages that are grilled directly over hot coals. The beef can be seasoned with a variety of spices including oyster and fish sauce, garlic, lemon grass, onions, and five-spice.
Before these tiny finger-size links are bedded on the grill, they are wrapped in one of two ways. The highly seasoned sausage comes either wrapped in a type of leaf called lá lốt or enveloped in a mỡ chài casing.
Lá lốt is a green heart-shaped leaf that is often mistaken for a betel leaf and they are both in the pepper family, indigenous to Southeast Asia. The leaf is wrapped around the meat, keeping it from drying out while grilling.
Mỡ chài is the second way the sausage is wrapped, coming in a 'caul fat casing. Caul fat is the thin membrane that lines the internal organs of cows, sheep, and pigs. It is also known as fat lace due to its appearance. Again, the casing keeps the meat moist while cooking.
Bò nướng lá lốt and bò nướng mỡ chài come with a lot of accompaniments used to assemble the dish. You will get a bouquet of rau (herbs and salads) that may include lettuce, basil, mint, banana leaf, cucumber, star fruit, and bean sprouts. Along with the greens, you will get a plate of bánh hỏi, small patches of woven vermicelli noodles plus a pile of bánh tráng (rice paper), and nước chấm (fish sauce) mixed with lime juice, garlic, sugar, and chilli peppers.
|Two types of Vietnamese grilled beef rolls called 'bò nướng lá lốt' and 'bò nướng mỡ chài' are served with noodles, rice paper, and vegetables. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
I stood in front of the cart and politely asked if I could take a photo of her cooking and she declined but told me 'OK' while pointing at the food. Disappointed and respecting her wishes, I snapped some fast food shots, ordered both lá lốt and mỡ chài then took a seat. The pajama girl arrived at my table with all the fixings and behind her I could see the old woman flipping the food shrouded in a mysterious veil of smoke.
Minutes later my order was served up on one dish, eight pieces of each lá lốt and mỡ chài all topped with a liberal amount of peanuts. The lá lốt reminds me of a Perla-sized Cuban cigar, with the dark green leaf skillfully wrapped around the meat. The mỡ chài sports a dark brown char and reminds me of the sausage links you would find next to your eggs and hash browns at any given IHOP. It is radically fragrant.
I swiped a sheet of rice paper and then a leaf of lettuce that I used to wipe down the paper with. I picked this trick up watching Vietnamese people eat. Rice paper is brittle, you can fold it, and it will snap. If you rub the paper down with the lettuce, it becomes soft and malleable from the water of the leaf, making it easy to wrap and chew.
I placed the lettuce on top of the paper, followed by a square of vermicelli noodles, more greens, and a slice of star fruit together with a few bean sprouts.
I pointed at the food saying out loud, eenie, meenie, miney, mỡ chài and then placed it on top of my mini mound of food. Applying years of rolling skills, I tightly twisted up my creation into a Robusto-sized cigar shape and it was time.
I dipped my roll into the funky nước chấm shoving the food into my mouth as I chopped down. Immediately I knew this was special. All the familiar flavors were there. The spices, the bacon-like flavor of the fat netting mixing with beef, but what made this shine was by far the smoke. I could taste it as if the old ladies' smoke was smoldering on my tongue. Better yet the juices of the meat were dribbling down my chin marinating my goatee!
Surprised, I put my roll down, grabbed a chopstick snipping one of the mỡ chài rolls in half and watched wide-eyed as juices leaked onto the plate. I rubbed my finger in it and then poked at my tongue, it was oily summing up all the flavors like a magical elixir. I quickly duplicated the maneuver upon the lá lốt getting the same results, leaving a tiny puddle goodness. The smoky flavor and the moist meat made all the difference.
I began working on my next roll and going heavy with the mint and a little extra star fruit. A lot of Vietnamese dishes give you loads of options on how to play with the flavors of your food. You can dial in your favorite flavor profile. I opened wide, bit down, and could taste the spices, herbs, and the lá lốt slightly bitter with hits of mild pepper all blended to perfection. The texture of the leaf wrapping reminds me of boiled spinach. I utterly demolished the dish in record time by simultaneously rolling and eating, eating and rolling continuously manipulating the flavors by adding and subtracting ingredients.
I stood up to pay VND70,000 (US$3) for my meal when I saw she was preparing to grill her next batch of bò lá lốt and mỡ chài so I decided to stick around and see what was what.
She had double metal skewers that pierced rows of bò lá lốt and separate skewers of bò mỡ chài. She then exposed her first trick, beside her cart was a house fan just a few feet away from her grill. She gunned it on high aiming downward. The coals quickly turned into red hot fire cakes emitting a tornado of smoke. Within minutes, the mỡ chài was secreting fatty oil. Her second trick was she picked them up and was constantly mopping the lá lốt in mỡ chài grease by rubbing them together. This is how she made her dish extra super-duper juicy, using a lot of caul fat taking advantage of the highly flavorful liquefied fat.
For the next three months I showed up frequently, 14 times to be exact. Sometimes I would just snack on mỡ chài, other times I would only order lá lốt, always taking photos and documenting my meals. I could not make up my mind which one I liked more, cherishing every bite.