Malaysia boasts Asia's best pork -- fatty and flavorful, unmatched by the pork eaten anywhere else in the region. This is what I tell anyone who might ask about pork in Asia, and it's what I tell myself every time I dig into a plate of char siew (sweet and sticky barbecued pork), bite into a baked BBQ pork bun, or spoon up one of the tender hand-formed pork balls that float in my favorite version of Penang's breakfast noodle soup, koay teow th'ng.
Then I go to Vietnam -- most recently, Saigon, where gauzy clouds of porcine charcoal smoke waft over the streets, especially in the mornings and the evenings. Has Ho Chi Minh City become porkier since we left? I doubt it, and yet I don't remember such an omnipresent scent of grilling pig from our years there in the early naughts. It may be that I was never much of a pork fan before we moved to Malaysia. (This is a bit ironic, though the assumption that pork is hard to find in Muslim Malaysia is mistaken. The country's Chinese population assures that even on the mostly Malay peninsular east coast pork can be found in restaurants and wet markets). Whatever the reason, these days when I return to Vietnam my food wanderings are very much about the hog.
Which is why our first meal on this last trip back "home" (a stop en route back to Penang from Phu Quoc, where Dave worked on what promises to be a delicious article with Vietnamese-American food writer and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen) was such a disappointment. After dropping our bags at our hotel we headed straight for Nhu Lan, an old favorite sited kitty-corner to the electric shaver-shaped Bitexco tower. Back in the day Dave and I would hit Nhu Lan once every weekend for lunch; our standard order: dependably tasty bun thit nuong (grilled pork with cool rice vermicelli and pickled vegetables) and fresh spring rolls with fruit shakes (pineapple and sapodilla for me, soursop for Dave).
Times have changed. Nowadays it's not strips of hot-from-the-grill fish sauce and sugar-marinated pork or pork patties that sit atop Nhu Lan's rice vermicelli, but cold pieces of meat with a strangely artificial Liquid Smoke-like flavor that have been reheated in a microwave. (Our other dishes -- a banh mi, sticky rice steamed in lotus leaf, and banh cuon or steamed rice noodle sheets -- were equally disappointing. Unfortunately Nhu Lan has taken a nosedive. We won't return.)
A few days later we went again in search of grilled pork, this time to a morning market. As I've argued elsewhere, Asia's morning markets are (too often untapped, by tourists) street food goldmines. They're especially useful to a.m grazers in Vietnam, where the number of breakfast specialties numbers in the dozens.
At District 1's Thai Binh market we found what we were looking for: not one but three grills belching smoke laced with the heavenly scent of well-marbled meat. Dave's bun thit nuong featured a mixture of herbs and lettuce hiding beneath a nest of vermicelli topped with pork, peanuts and a dainty dab of chopped scallion greens wilted in hot oil. Daikon and carrot pickle in nuoc mam (fish sauce) were served on the side and -- nice touch -- the table held a glass jar containing more pickle with which to serve ourselves.
I opted for com thit nuong, a whole pork chop sliced crosswise and laid atop "broken" rice. As I dug in I was reminded how much I love the rice in Vietnam, with its wonderful chew and not-quite-sticky texture that hovers somewhere between short-grain and glutinous rice. Next to my rice lay carrot and daikon pickle, cucumbers, and a few leaves of lettuce and basil. The fish sauce for dipping I doctored to my (somewhat extreme) taste with a couple of spoonfuls of crushed fresh red chili.
What makes Vietnamese pork so tasty? It might be down to the variety of pig raised there, and probably is linked to what they eat. But there's also the issue of freshness.
The average Vietnamese housewife/home cook shops for ingredients at least once and often twice a day. Most Vietnamese wet markets have two rush hours, in the morning and evening. Fresh ingredients are delivered to stall holders throughout the day (much as the best banh mi vendors have fresh bread delivered to them hourly).
When I was last in Vietnam, Australian chef, Vietnam cookbook author and Hanoi Cooking Centre owner Tracey Lister told me that for pigs in Vietnam, the average time from slaughter to butcher block is 4 or 5 hours. It doesn't get much fresher than that.
There are several grilled pork vendors at small, easily navigable Thai Binh market, which located across from the bus terminal at the edge of Saigon's backpacker district on Pham Ngu Lao Street. Or follow your nose to -- and judge with your eyes -- the grilled pork dishes served up by any of the city's hundreds of other vendors, who usually set up in the mornings and evenings. I judge a bun thit nuong / com thit nuong by the vendor's generosity of pickles, the presence of a sprinkle of peanuts and dab of oily scallion greens, and his or her pork's lardy glaze and crusty surface.