I am fortunate to live in a city with many different ethnic neighborhoods, and an excellent restaurant “scene.” Within walking distance of my home there is Little Italy, a Mexican neighborhood, Chinatown (long walk,) Greektown, a college neighborhood, the meat and fish wholesale district, and an area known as “restaurant row.”
In an attempt to get to know the culinary options available just outside my own door I have started venturing out on the weekends to explore the various areas. I’ll add some posts about those adventures later, right now I’d like to mention two food items I picked up last weekend when I went out to the Vietnamese neighborhood for a soup and sandwich lunch of pho and banh mi.
The first is called Nem Chua
I am pretty adventurous when it comes to what I will eat and have a tendency to leap before I look. My shopping style is equally careless. I see something I want, I get it, and then I ask what it is and how much it costs (much to my wife’s chagrin. This is best demonstrated by the time she sent me to pick up a few items at Whole Foods and I returned $300 lighter, including a $25 jar of almond butter which we ate maybe 2 tablespoons of and $30 jar of powdered greens superfood, which was throw out immediately after discovering it tasted like fish food)
Nem Chua is a bundle of fermented pork meat and skin with garlic and pepper which is eaten raw. The ingredients listed are:pork, pork skin, garlic, Thai pepper, black pepper, sugar. I don’t know what makes it safe or how it ferments, all of the information I’ve read contains a mysterious Nem Chua powder (powder for fermenting pork) “available at Asian grocery stores.” I’m hoping that it contains some type of curing salt (this is a reasonable guess based on how red the meat is, if it didn’t contain curing salt wouldn’t it be gray) which would make this safe to eat, but either way it is pretty delicious and with the exception of the effect on my breath from the raw garlic I have had no adverse reactions.
The taste of the pork is very mild and a little sour, then the raw garlic and chile hit you and the heat and spice and pork has a wonderful synergy in the mouth. The texture is like a large piece of tuna sashimi, but has rubbery bites to it when you chew the skin pieces distributed throughout. It leaves a heat in your mouth from the Thai pepper. Overall very good, much better than my description makes them sound, and would make a good occasional or exotic snack, maybe as an option with chicken wings while watching a game.
It’s claimed that they don’t need to be refrigerated and are therefore a good treat to pack for hiking, although I keep mine in the refrigerator. It is also said that they are a good snack to go with beer, with this I would have to agree.
The second thing I picked up is called Cha Lua
Apparently this translates as silk sausage. The ingredients listed are: pork, fish sauce, water, potatoes starch, vegetable oil, sugar, MSG, baking powder, corn starch and citric acid. For all the ingredients it has a very bland flavor. It is basically a pork loaf of very smooth consistency, boiled in a banana leaf. They say it is done when it bounces and it is very rubbery. The texture is identical to Oscar Meyer bologna and the taste is that of Buddig chicken. It has a tough “skin” which I have been removing as I eat it. I enjoy fish sauce and wish this had a fish sauce flavor but it is very taste neutral. I’ve been using it to make sandwiches with grainy mustard, red onion and cha lua. A good alternative sandwich meat to change things up from the usual turkey, roast beef or ham.