Vietnamese Pork Chops
Pork chops? Meh. That's my general feeling on this cut of meat. I am a sucker and order them now and again when I see them on menus, but I think the times I've been disappointed by them have outnumbered the instances when they've left me with something to talk about. I do have a soft spot though for Vietnamese lemongrass pork chops, but I've been burned by these too before, adding to my soured perception overall. I figured if I make them at home though, they're bound to be delicious, and on my first shot at cooking them I used Kenji's recipe, which outputted the best Vietnamese pork chops I've ever had, and maybe just the best porks chops overall too.
Besides the fact that I had a hankering for these savory and tender pork chops, the recipe also drew me in by its call to use a mortar and pestle, which is one kitchen tool I'm trying to use more often. So when the recipe started with either ground white pepper or smashing white peppercorns yourself in a mortar and pestle, I went the smashing route.
The smashing wasn't over yet though, next went in lemongrass, palm sugar, shallot, and garlic. Now when I bought this mortar and pestle, I got the smaller version because I knew it wouldn't be my most used kitchen utensil, but for a recipe like this, a bigger one would have been nice because at first I was mostly just flinging ingredients all over the kitchen. I had to remove some of the ingredients and smash everything up in two batches for it to be manageable.
After I had worked the initial ingredients into a rough paste, I whisked them together with fish sauce and canola oil to create the final super savory, salty, and lemony marinade.
For the pork chops, I picked up some well marbled and thinly sliced specimens, which are the standard at my local Asian market. Thin is pretty key here to cook them quickly, so if you're stuck with thicker cuts from a local grocery, it will probably help to flatten them a bit more by hitting them with a rolling pin or pan before marinating them for at least and hour in the fridge.
Now the marinade recipe is Kenji's, but the nuoc cham recipe in his post is actually mine. I used to be Serious Eats' sauce guy, and during my years spent in that roll, I documented a master recipe for this ubiquitous Vietnamese sauce that's served with so many things. It's flavored heavily with fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice, which isn't as potent as you'd think thanks to a lot of water added in as well. Adding in garlic is must, chili peppers are optional, but recommended, and then carrot is a common addition and something I often toss in when taking photos, but sometimes don't bother with it when making in other situations.
A hallmark of these pork chops are a lot of charring/caramelization. For this, a hot fire is needed, and I recommend charcoal for optimal heat and flavor. If you look at the photo at the top of the post, that pork chop was cooked on my Mom's gas grill and is nowhere near as crusty and the pork cooked here over coals (that intro photo was the prettiest one that I had though, so it won to be the poster child for the post). With thin meat and a hot fire, these cook super fast—in just a couple minutes per side they're properly browned and cooked through.
You might think pork cooked in this manner may be tough and dry, but these pork chops were the complete opposite. Thanks to some nice marbling on the meat and the marinade, the pork was nothing but tender and juicy, but that was only the beginning. The flavor was immense—savory, salty, lemony, and garlicky, all melding into one incredible taste that sets these as a pinnacle of pork chop amazingness in my book. At lets not forget all the important accompaniments—a dip in the nuoc cham turns these up to 11, steamed broken rice has been my favorite type serve alongside here, top that with a crispy fried egg and it gets even better, and, finally, some cucumber slices for intermittent bursts of cool freshness for when you taste buds might hit overload status and need some cleansing. I like to use existing recipes as starting points for my own adaptions, but Kenji hit the nail on the head here and I wouldn't change a thing anytime I cook these, which will probably a lot more often now, and that may just start to brighten my opinion on pork chops altogether.
Vietnamese Pork Chops
- Yield 6 servings
- Prep 20 Minutes
- Inactive 1 Hour
- Cook 5 Minutes
- Total 1 Hour 25 Minutes
- For the Nuoc Cham
- 1 cup hot water
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/3 cup Vietnamese fish sauce
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons finely grated carrot (optional)
- 1 small bird's eye chili, minced (optional)
- For the Pork Chops
- 2 teaspoons whole white peppercorns
- 3 stalks lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup palm sugar or light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons finely diced shallots (about 1 small)
- 4 teaspoons minced garlic (about 4 medium cloves)
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 1/2 pounds thin-cut pork chops, preferably blade end
- For Serving
- Cooked crushed or jasmine rice
- Fried eggs
- Sliced cucumber
- To make the nuoc cham: In a small bowl, whisk together water and sugar until sugar dissolves. Add in lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, carrot (if using), and chili (if using); whisk to combine. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the pork chops: Place peppercorns in a mortar and pestle and lightly crush. Add in lemongrass, palm or light brown sugar, shallots, garlic, and salt and work into a rough paste. Transfer mixture to a small bowl and whisk in fish sauce and oil.
- Place pork chops in a large resealable bag, pour in marinade, seal bag and toss to even distribute marinade. Place bag in refrigerator and let marinate for an hour to overnight.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place marinated pork chops on grill and cook until lightly charred and cooked through, flipping meat occasionally, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer pork to plates and serve with nuoc cham, rice, fried egg, and sliced cucumber.
Adapted from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.
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Gary English speakers call this dish "com tam" which is a simplified translation of the Vietnamese "C%u01A1m t%u1EA5m", cause not many speak Viet and would not know how to pronounce it!
It's generally served with the items in your cook and with "broken rice", which is literally broken rice that is deemed not suitable for selling, as this was/is a pauper's dish.
And you're right, these Vietnamese pork chops can be the best tasting pork chops you'll ever put in your mouth!