Vietnamese Pesto with Claypot Pork
This is a dish that might fall into what we would call “fusion cuisine.” I’ve never particularly like that moniker. Everything we eat nowadays is fusion of some kind. Pizza is fusion. Empanadas are fusion. Most modern dishes involve techniques and ingredients that originated in different cultures, so it seems a little silly to call any particular food fusion. That said, if I’ve ever produced anything that could be called “fusion,” this is definitely it. The ingredients and flavors are definitely Vietnamese, but the styling is western.
The flavors in this dish are what I imagine when I think about Vietnamese food. When I visited Vietnam, I didn’t make it farther north than Danang, so the flavors are rooted in South Vietnamese cuisine and what I’ve eaten back home in the US (which I imagine also tends toward Southern Vietnamese cuisine).
In many ways, it combines all of my favorite things about the Vietnamese food I have eaten: the absolutely delicious claypot dishes simmered with caramel sauce, the ever-present plate of fresh herbs to add to a dish, and the perfectly balanced dipping sauce, nước chấm.
To get all of these flavors into one dish, I made a pesto with those fresh herbs and the flavors of that ubiquitous dipping sauce. The pesto is added to udon noodles and then topped with ground pork simmered with bittersweet caramel sauce and salty fish sauce.
Like many Vietnamese dishes, there is a fair amount of prep to put this together, but once your pesto and caramel sauces are made, the rest is easy.
Vietnamese Pesto with Claypot Pork
2 tbsp water
½ cup sugar
1 tsp rice vinegar
2 cups basil, loosely packed
½ cup mint, loosely packed
½ cup cilantro, loosely packed
¾ cup oil
½ cup scallions, white part only
3 tsp fish sauce
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp fresh lime juice (~1lime)
½ tsp sugar
2 jalapenos, seeded
½ tsp black pepper
20 oz. Udon Noodles (dry, ~2 packets)
This can and should be made ahead of time. It keeps in the refrigerator for an incredibly long time, and is something that is great to have on hand. It is sweet and slightly bitter, and adds excellent depth to simmered meats.
Begin filling a pot in the sink with cool water. Make sure that the saucepan you are cooking the caramel sauce in fits inside the pot in the sink.
Heat the 2 tbsp water, ½ cup sugar, and 1 tsp rice vinegar over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Stir often for around 5 minutes as the color changes. When it reaches the color of light tea, reduce the heat to medium-low to slow the cooking process. When cooking caramel, things happen by the second, so don’t take your eyes off of this dish.
Continue cooking the caramel over medium-low and stirring often. It will continue to darken, and the darkening process will continue to accelerate. The color you are looking for is something between red wine and black coffee. When you hit the red wine appearance, remove the pot from heat and put the bottom into the cool water in the sink. This will immediately arrest the cooking process and stop before you burn it.
Add ¼ cup of water to the caramel and return it to the stove over medium-low heat. The sugar will seize with the addition of water, but as it warms, it will dissolve into the water and give you a nice, dark caramel sauce.
Once it is all dissolved, pour it into a heat-safe container and store it in the fridge until needed. It should taste both sweet and bitter, and a bit like molasses.
This pesto is made just like any other. Add all of the ingredients to a food processor and blend it until smooth. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary. Some may prefer more fish sauce or more salt.
Ground Pork Topping:
Add the ground pork to a skillet over medium heat. Add all other ingredients and simmer until the pork is cooked through and the sauce is reduced to a thick consistency. It should not add much liquid to the finished dish. Be sure to break up the ground pork with your spatula throughout the cooking process to get an even consistency in the finished product.
It is not necessary to use udon noodles for this dish, but I do think that they are perfect. They have a delightful soft, hearty texture and work perfectly with the pesto and ground pork.
Follow the package instructions for preparation. Be sure to boil the noodles in well-salted water, and don’t let them boil too long. Udon noodles cook faster than what you may be used to.
Add the pesto to the drained noodles and stir to coat evenly. Divide the sauced noodles between plates. Top with a scoop of the claypot pork. Garnish with chopped fresh herbs and black pepper. Additional salt, lime, or fish sauce should be available to adjust seasonings to taste.