Perhaps the most attractive scent ever for humankind is the smell of meat grilling over an open fire. I would always remember grilled pork skewers as a childhood after school snack. There would always be a pork skewer stall in front of many schools in Vietnam, with the stall owner grilling the skewers on and selling them straight from a small open charcoal grill, because the stall owner knows that no students can resist that mouth-watering aroma after a long day at school or in the early morning hours. The skewers can be eaten on their own, with a squeeze of chilli sauce on top, which instantly wakes up your taste bud and warms up your body in a breezy winter day. Alternatively, one or two pork skewers sandwiched between a crusty baguette with some freshly pickled carrots and cucumbers makes for a great breakfast bánh mì. For lunch, grilled pork skewers are served with bún – thin white rice noodles and some fresh vegetables and herbs and a bowl of dipping sauce (nước chấm). You can say that these skewers are so versatile and delicious that we Vietnamese try to eat them as much as we can, during any time of the day that we want. Thus, missing out on this simple and delicious recipe is not advisable for our RnF readers.
The most ‘complicated’ and thus most important part of this recipe is the marinade, because it is essentially the definition of these pork skewers. Try to get your hand on all the listed ingredients, even the optional sesame seeds, because it is the little thing that makes a great difference in cooking. When choosing the meat, a fatty piece of pork is ideal to prevent the skewers from drying out while grilling. Don’t be scared of the layers of fat – it will all melt upon being grilled and leave the skewers with a scrumptious golden shine.
- 450 grams (1 lb.) pork shoulder, or pork belly
- 2 – 3 shallots (15 gram)
- 3 – 4 cloves of garlic (15 gram)
- 2 stalks of lemongrass
- 3 tbsp Vietnamese caramel sauce
- ½ tsp sesame oil
- 1 Tbsp fish sauce
- 1 Tbsp oyster sauce
- 1/2 Tbsp granulated sugar
- 1/2 Tbsp oil
- Ground black pepper (optional)
- White sesame seeds (optional)
- Bamboo skewers
* Note: Vietnamese caramel sauce is NOT the same as the caramel sauce you use in desserts. For more information, see our glossary.
1. Wash the wooden skewers and put them in a pot of boiling water to sanitise them completely.
If you are grilling the meat over direct fire, soak the skewers in cold water for about half an hour before threading the meat to prevent the skewers from burning.
2. Finely chop the shallots, garlics and lemongrass.
Slice the pork into 2 – 3 mm thick slices. Aim to have even slices of pork – not too thick so that it wouldn’t be too tough for the skewers to pierce through, but not too thin to save up time putting the meat together. I always use the pork shoulder for this recipe. Thanks to the fat that lies between the meat, I never need to worry that the meat will get dry when being grilled. Plus, grilled pork shoulder is tender and crunchy at the same time. If you can’t find this part, pork belly also works quite well. If using pork belly, remember to remove the skin before skewer the meat.
3. Mix the pork with all of the ingredients listed above and leave it to marinate for about 2 – 3 hours. However, it is best to marinate the pork overnight in the fridge – this allows the pork to fully ‘soak up’ the delicious flavours that are essential to your perfect grilled pork skewers.
I sometimes use shallot/ garlic/ lemongrass powder instead of the fresh ones. It’s more convenient and fast but the taste of the meat when marinated with fresh spices is slightly better.
– There is no fixed measurement for the pork marinade – every family has a different taste bud, so keep experimenting until you reach the ratio that you fancy. If you are a beginner and unsure about your seasoning skills, try mixing your marinade in a separate bowl and seasoning it to taste first before adding it into the meat. After marinating the meat, you can also do a taste-test by cooking (on the hob or in the microwave) a small piece of meat and adjust the seasonings if necessary.
– The main purpose of using caramel sauce is to give the meat a nice golden brown color after being grilled. If you omit this sauce, replace the “1/2 tbsp sugar” in the recipe by 2 tbsp brown sugar. In addition, prepare some honey to brush on the meat when grilling them.
4. Thread the pork into the bamboo skewers by piercing the skewer through one end of a meat slice, rolling the meat around the skewer and securing it by putting the skewer through the other end. Make 2 – 3 meat rolls on one skewer. The smaller meat slices should be on the inside, while the larger ones on the outside. Shape the skewer with your hand when you’re done threading the meat so that the meat is distributed evenly along the skewer. Make sure to leave a little bit of space between the slices. Don’t roll the meat too tight or put too much meat on one skewer, otherwise it would take a long time for the skewers to cook through and there is a high chance of burning them without fully cooking the inside.
5. It’s grilling time! Put the skewers in a pre-heated oven at 200°C/ 392°F for 30 – 40 minutes. After 20 – 25 minutes, turn the skewers so that the meat cooks evenly on both sides.
If you can grill the meat over charcoal fire, you should definitely take advantage of that – the charcoal fire gives the meat a smoky flavour, a beautiful charred and a mouth-watering aroma that is far superior to the oven grilled version.
You can also grill the meat over a griddle pan on the hob like this pan. The griddle pan helps to char the meat, similarly to charcoal grilling. Lightly coat the pan with a thin layer of oil before placing the meat into the pan. Flatten the meat skewers a bit if you are pan-grilling, so that the meat cooks more quickly and evenly.
* Note: To prevent the meat from drying out, regardless of the grilling method, occasionally brush the skewers with some oil during the grilling process. Also, if you don’t use caramel sauce, it’s better to mix about 1 – 2 Tbsp honey with oil and lightly brush this mixture all over the skewers. With honey, the meat will turn brown faster and has a glossy/ shiny “look” as well. However, as honey makes the meat brown fast, it should only be brushed onto the skewers at the last minutes, e.g., 5 – 7 minutes before you take the skewers out of the oven.
6. Enjoy them hot and fresh out of the grill !
- Recipe & Photos: Linh Trang
- Written & Edited by: Thảo Đan