Why It Works
- Ground pork butt combined with pork paste and pork fat offer the perfect balance of fat and meat for succulent and tender nem lui.
- Using ground pork that is about twenty percent fat ensures you won't end up with dry, flavorless meat.
- Using pâté instead of raw liver saves you time while preserving the distinctive taste of the pork peanut sauce.
Walk along the streets of Huế and you'll inevitably smell the tantalizing fragrance of nem lụi, or charcoal- grilled lemongrass pork skewers, which is a specialty of the former imperial city. Not much is known about the origin of nem lụi other than it was created exclusively for the imperial family. Centuries later, it's made its way to the street food scene and is one of the more popular local foods, holding its own against bún bò Huế (Huế beef noodle soup), bún thịt nướng (grilled pork noodle bowl), cơm hến (rice topped with tiny river clams), bánh bèo (steamed rice cake with prawn floss), and bánh khoai (Huế pancakes with prawns and pork).
Beside nem lụi, Vietnamese love other grilled “meats-on-a-stick” like nem nướng (grilled pork meatballs on a bamboo skewer), nem chua nướng (grilled fermented pork sausage on a bamboo skewer), and chạo tôm (grilled shrimp paste on a sugar cane skewer). But what distinguishes nem lụi is its skewer is made from lemongrass.
The original version of nem lụi consists of ground pork, pork paste, pork fat, and pork skin marinated with sugar, fish sauce, salt, freshly ground pepper, garlic, and shallot. Within central Vietnam, regional nem lụi variations exist. Some Vietnamese make nem lụi with pork and beef while others favor pork and shrimp. They also add ginger, chopped lemongrass, bird’s eye chile, and various spices, like cinnamon.
Once marinated, the meat is rolled into a sausage shape around a lightly crushed lemongrass skewer which lends its wonderful aroma and flavor to the meat. The meat skewers are brushed with vegetable oil and cooked on the charcoal grill until slightly charred. Cooking over the charcoal grill imbues a wonderful smokiness to nem lụi and creates a more intense flavor, a result of rendered fat dripping from the meat onto the charcoal and releasing flavor back onto the meat.
The locals enjoy nem lụi with a distinct concoction of ground pork, pork liver, garlic, shallot, ground peanut, fermented soy beans, vinegar, and various seasonings. Outside of Huế, you will likely find a similar sauce sans the pork liver. Raw liver has a particular smell, and it requires special handling and preparation. The liver membrane needs to be removed before cooking otherwise the resulting texture is unpleasantly rubbery and chewy. Once the membrane is removed, the liver needs to be cut into small chunks and soaked in vinegar, lemon juice, or milk for a few hours to remove the odor and any remaining impurities. For home cooks, using a liver pâté instead of raw liver is a smarter choice. The nuanced taste of the pork peanut dipping sauce is preserved without any extra work.
Enjoy nem lụi as a snack with just a dipping sauce from afternoon until midnight or make it a full meal when dining in a group. Locals often order nem lụi along with bánh khoai, a sister version of bánh xèo (Vietnamese crepes). Serving nem lụi as part of a platter along with rice paper, vermicelli noodles, cucumber, star fruit, green mango, pineapple, lettuce, Vietnamese coriander, perilla, and mint as well as pickled carrot and green papaya is also very popular.
The hands-on nature of these platters make the experience fun and customizable, but they do require have many components, so plan accordingly. When the spread is set in front of you, take a sheet of rice paper, add your favorite fresh herbs, along with fruits, vegetables, noodles, and nem lụi (remove the skewer first), roll everything up, and dip the package into the pork and peanut dipping sauce. These rice paper platters encapsulate the best of Vietnamese food—fresh and vibrant herbs and grilled meat full of flavor and texture, bound together by a delectable sauce.
- For the Pork Peanut Dipping Sauce:
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable or other neutral oil
- 1 medium shallot (20g), roughly chopped (20g)
- 2 cloves garlic (8g), roughly chopped
- 2 ounces (55g) ground pork (see note)
- 2 ounces (60g) whole grain soybean sauce (tương hột), such as Super Q Tương Hột or Cholimex
- 2 ounces (60g) smooth peanut butter
- 1/2 cup (120ml) milk, plus more as needed
- 4 ounces (115g) Vietnamese pork pâté, such as Flower Brand
- 2 tablespoons (25g) sugar, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) distilled white vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce, plus more to taste
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 fresh Thai chiles, stemmed and thinly sliced
- For the Nem Lụi Huế:
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 ounces (55g) pork back fat, cut into 1/4-inch dice (see note)
- 8 ounces (225g) ground pork (see note)
- 6 1/2 ounces (185g) Vietnamese pork paste, such as Tay Ho and Phu Huong
- 2 tablespoons (25g) sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (20ml) fish sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 medium shallots (40g), finely chopped
- 4 cloves (16g) garlic, finely minced
- 1 ounce (30g) cooked and shredded pork skin, roughly chopped (optional, see note)
- 16 lemongrass stalks, bottoms trimmed to 6-inch lengths and lightly crushed with the blunt side of a knife
- Vegetable or other neutral oil, for greasing and brushing
- Pickled carrots, for serving, carot chua (see note)
- Pickled papaya for serving, du du chua (see note)
- To Serve as Rice Paper Platter:
- 2 ounces (55g) Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles
- 8 ounces (225g) fresh skinned and cored pineapple, sliced lengthwise into 3-inch long and 1/4-inch-thick pieces
- 2 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick pieces
- 1 small green mango, peeled, pitted, and sliced lengthwise into 3-inch long and 1/4-inch-thick pieces (see note)
- 2 small star fruit, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick pieces (optional; see note)
- 2 small green bananas, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise into 1/8-inch-thick pieces (optional; see note)
- 1 head butter lettuce, leaves picked and washed
- 1 bunch rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), leaves picked
- 1 bunch perilla, leaves picked
- 1 bunch mint, leaves picked
- Rice papers, round or square
In a small saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add shallots and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add ground pork and cook, stirring to break up the meat, until browned, about 3 minutes.
Reduce heat to medium-low and add whole grain soybean sauce and peanut butter. Whisk in milk and pâté until smooth. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until thickened slightly, about 3 minutes.
Whisk in sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, and pepper. Cook until slightly thicker than gravy, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with additional sugar or fish sauce, if desired. If it's too thick, whisk in 1 tablespoon of milk at a time until it reaches a desirable consistency. Remove from heat.
Transfer mixture to a food processor bowl and process until smooth. Using a flexible spatula, scrape sauce into a serving bowl. Stir in chiles and set aside until ready to serve.
For the Nem Lụi Huế: In a small bowl, stir together baking powder with 1 1/2 teaspoons (7ml) water; set aside. In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups (475ml) water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add pork fat and simmer to render out some of the excess fat, about 4 minutes. Drain pork fat, and transfer to a large bowl.
Add ground pork, pork paste, sugar, fish sauce, salt, pepper, and reserved baking powder mixture to bowl with pork fat. Using clean hands, knead pork mixture until well combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Add shallots, garlic, and chopped pork skin (if using), and knead until well combined, about 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate pork mixture for at least 2 and up to 8 hours.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Divide pork mixture into 16 even portions, approximately 1 ounce (30g) each. Coat gloved or ungloved palms lightly with vegetable oil. Roll each portion of pork mixture into a 3-inch log around base of each lemongrass skewer and place on prepared baking sheet.
Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate.
Brush skewers with oil. Grill skewers over indirect heat, turning every 2 minutes, until cooked through, about 8 minutes.
Move skewers over direct heat and cook, flipping occasionally, until charred on both sides, about 1 minute. Serve warm with pork peanut dipping sauce and pickled vegetables.
To Serve as Rice Paper Platter for Rolls: In a 3-quart saucepan, bring 6 cups water to a boil over high heat. Cook vermicelli noodles until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Shake off the excess water and set aside.
Fill a large bowl with warm water and set on table with a platter full of grilled nem lui hue, the pork peanut dipping sauce, pickled vegetables, cooked vermicelli noodles, pineapple, cucumber, green mango, star fruit, green bananas, lettuce leaves, rau ram, perilla leaves, mint leaves, and rice paper.
To serve, dip one sheet of rice paper in the warm water, making sure rice paper is completely wet before shaking off excess water. Lay rice paper on a serving plate and let it sit until completely pliable, about 30 seconds. Arrange any combination of lettuce, herbs, cucumber, pineapple, green mango, green banana, star fruit, and vermicelli noodles over rice paper near the end closest to you.
Remove one nem lui from its lemongrass skewer and place it on top of roll fillings. Starting with the nearest edge, carefully lift rice paper over filling, fold in the sides, then roll tightly. Serve with pork peanut dipping sauce and pickled vegetables.
- To prevent the meat from drying out when grilled, use ground pork that is at least twenty to twenty-five percent fat. This can be achieved by incorporating a small amount of firm pork fat (preferably from the back) with meat from a pork shoulder (butt). If you cannot find pork fat, use 10 ounces of finely ground pork belly to replace both the 2 ounces pork fat and 8 ounces pork butt in the nem lụi Huế .
- Packages of pork skin can be found in the frozen section of some Asian grocery stores, though they can sometimes be hard to find. If you can't find it, you can leave the skin out and proceed with the recipe as written. Alternatively, you can make your own by purchasing 4 ounces (110g) raw pork skin (sometimes sold as rind) from a local butcher; boil until the skin can easily be pierced by a knife, about 45 minutes, then drain and transfer to refrigerator to chill. Once cold, slice rind into hair-like strands using a sharp knife, then roughly chop into shorter lengths.
- For the pickled carrot and papaya, use the recipe here, but replace daikon with green papaya.
- Green mango, star fruit, and green bananas are found at Asian grocery stores or specialty produce stores, though they are seasonal and can sometimes be challenging to find.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Nem lụi can be formed and stored in the fridge, uncooked, for up to 1 day before grilling. The dipping sauce can be made the day before. Reheat it over the stove and thin it out with 1-2 tablespoons of milk if the consistency is too thick.