These days, traveling is within our minds. It wouldn't be right to describe it as confined, because our minds are free to wander off to old haunts or imagine new discoveries. And so it was, on one particular evening, I was reminiscing a culinary adventure with my brother in Vietnam, having really delicious food and that signature local coffee that jolted and refreshed us in equal measures. We hopped on buses, sailed on boats, walked on foot for miles and miles, just taking it all in and enjoying the giddy freedom that came from being young, free, and having tight waistlines.
It was one of those days when it felt like dust and sweat were gumming our arms and faces, and the growl in our stomachs was getting louder. We were all pho'd out/ban mi'd out and just wanted a taste of a home-cooked meal in a nice ambiance. A quick check on Google Map showed us the nearest restaurants. Mountain Retreat stood out. Intriguing name, considering we were at a busy intersection amidst the din of honking motorbikes and animated pedestrians. Let's find this Mountain Retreat, we agreed in unison, and zipped past narrow alleys and took a turn to a quiet lane with a nondescript building. Le Loi, D1, it seemed about right, and we were by then almost jogging up five flights of stairs to get to the rooftop where the restaurant is located.
What greeted us was this almost monastic-looking hallway with lanterns hung on bamboo, a water sculpture, and a very zen waiter welcoming us to Mountain Retreat and offering to bring us to the corner patio, where we could peer down the street below while enjoying simple, elegant dishes like steamed wing beans with spicy tofu and sriracha dipping, the ubiquitous fresh spring rolls, suon non nuong la chanh (barbecued back ribs with lemongrass) and ga kho la chanh (claypot braised chicken). Needless to say, we were two very full and happy siblings after that meal, and it was worth the workout.
It's been close to five years since that memorable trip, and it serves as an inspiration to the following recipe. There's a classic Vietnamese dish called suon ram man, a literal translation to caramelised pork ribs, but I was missing three key ingredients: fish sauce, coconut water/juice and lemongrass. And because I like to add in my own interpretation of things, I mixed a few things up: exchanged the fish sauce with vinegar (if you don't like the pungent smell of fish sauce or don't have this in your cupboard either, you can use Datu Puti spicy vinegar...it works wonders and helps soften the meat. You can also skip the vinegar or fish sauce entirely). To thicken the sauce more, I added in a half teaspoon of cornstarch. In lieu of lemongrass stalk, I added more leeks on top of the spring onions. It's a fragrant and flavourful dish best served with steamed rice.
Cooking time: 20 minutes
500 grams pork ribs, cut into 3 cm
2 stalks of green onions, about 4 cm for the white part, and cut the green part into small bits
1 shallot, minced or 2 stalks of leek, sliced off root and same as above
1 chili pepper (can be adjusted)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vinegar or fish sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon white or brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoon nuoc mau*
1 tablespoon cooking oil
*Nuoc mau is a caramelised sugar syrup that you can make to coat the pork ribs. You'll need:
1/2 cup white or brown sugar (I used brown)
80 ml warm water
1. Heat sugar and water in small saucepan over medium-low heat. You can use the same wok that you will cook your pork ribs in. Monitor the sugar closely; as it melts and darkens in colour, give it a quick stir. Once the syrup starts bubbling, allow it to bubble for about 15 seconds, then turn off heat and put in small bowl.
The nuoc mau should look like thick liquified caramel
2. Meanwhile, season ribs with 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
If your pork is bought from a supermarket, you may want to boil it in water for about 2-3 minutes to remove any impurities before chopping and cooking it.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon of cooking oil in wok at medium-high heat. Add white part of onions, diced leeks and minced garlic, sautéing until fragrant. Add the seasoned ribs and chili pepper, and stir constantly, turning the sides until the meat starts to brown. You may add fish sauce or vinegar if you like, at this step.
4. Add 1 teaspoon sugar and the nuoc mau sauce. Keep stirring to combine ingredients. Add a bit of water to level with the ribs. Turn heat down to medium. Keep stirring and turning the sides of pork. Add cornstarch here to thicken the sauce further.
5. After the liquid has reduced to half, and the pork sides have browned, add the chopped green onions. Turn off heat. Serve with fresh greens and steamed rice.