Vietnam is one of my favourite places for street food. Whether I’m in a big city or small town, there’s always something interesting and delicious to eat. I go from vendor to vendor, looking at what they are preparing before deciding if I still have room in my stomach – and almost always, the answer is yes.
Vietnamese rice vermicelli with pig’s ears, chicken giblets, cha lua and home-made chilli sauce
I tried this dish in Phan Thiet, on the coast of southeast Vietnam, earlier this year. My friends and I were wandering through the fish market by the harbour when we came across a vendor selling banh mi thit and another making a rice noodle dish that I was not familiar with. Even though I had eaten breakfast at the hotel, I was soon downing breakfasts number two and three.
The sandwich was good, of course, because the bread in Vietnam is excellent, but the noodles were fantastic: room-temperature rice vermicelli with sliced pig’s ear, sliced pork liver, cha lua (cold pork sausage with a slightly rubbery texture), bean sprouts and a handful of fresh herbs. After the vendor piled everything into a bowl, I expected her to add some nuoc cham (dipping sauce made up of fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar and sugar) but she ladled a generous amount of chilli-garlic sauce (tuong ot toi) over the ingredients instead. It was tongue-tinglingly spicy but balanced by sweet and sour flavours.
I made the tuong ot toi at home but it took a few attempts to get the spice balance right. It works best if you use equal amounts of spicy red chillies – as many varieties as you can find, for a more complex flavour – and red banana chillies, to balance the heat. It’s important to get the quantities right: weigh the chillies after removing the stems and seeds, and weigh the garlic after removing the skin. This sauce is now a staple in my fridge; it keeps for a few weeks.
To serve with the noodles, I substituted chicken giblets for the pig’s liver, because the latter sometimes has a mealy texture.
1 pig’s ear, about 300 grams
8-10 chicken giblets, depending on size
2 garlic cloves
8-10 black peppercorns
Fine sea salt
200 grams cha lua
400 grams thin rice vermicelli
A large handful of bean sprouts
Fresh herbs, such as mint leaves, Thai basil and culantro (also known as sawtooth herb)
For the tuong ot toi:
70 grams red banana chillies, stems and seeds removed
70 grams spicy red chillies, such as bird’s-eye and others, stems and seeds removed
40 grams peeled garlic
80 grams palm sugar or granulated sugar
20 grams fine sea salt
20ml distilled white vinegar
Put the pig’s ear in a pot with enough salted boiling water to cover it. Add the garlic cloves and peppercorns. Bring to the boil then lower the flame, cover the pot with the lid and simmer for about 90 minutes, or until the pig’s ear is tender but the cartilage still has some crunch. Remove the pig’s ear from the water, then put the chicken giblets in the pot and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until tender. Put the pig’s ear back in the pot and let it and the giblets cool in the liquid.
Make the tuong ot toi. Roughly chop the garlic and chillies and put them in the bowl of a food processer. Add the sugar and salt and process until the ingredients are finely chopped. Scrape the mixture into a small pan and add the white vinegar and about 50ml of water. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, until it reduces to a thin paste. Cool to room temperature then refrigerate for at least an hour. At first, the chilli sauce will taste too spicy but as it rests, the flavours will mellow. If it’s overwhelmingly spicy after an hour, add a little more sugar and/or vinegar.
Prepare the rice noodles according to the instructions on the package, then drain.
Divide the rice noodles between six bowls and add the bean sprouts, mint, basil leaves and the culantro (torn into smaller pieces). Slice the pig’s ear and chicken giblets about 3mm thick and divide them between the bowls. Quarter the cha lua lengthwise, slice it about 3mm thick, then divide them between the bowls. Add a dollop of the chilli sauce over the noodles, then put the rest into a bowl and let the diners add more to taste. Mix the ingredients well before eating.