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11/07/2018 - 07:54

Lemongrass Pork Salt – the deep memories

The sudden heavy evening rain had kept me off the usual path back home and stopped by a roadside coffee shop and got myself a hot cocoa while waiting for the rain to stop.

There were only a few guests at that time; all of them came to take shelter from the rain like I did. The melancholy feeling of the rain made the melody of "Back home" by saxophonist Tran Manh Tuan sounded especially deep and soothing from the speakers hung in the corner of the wall.

The scent of roasted lemongrass pork coated with shrimp paste from the kitchen next door resonated with the music and the cold rain made the exiled man feel hungry, wish for flinging into a dinner, crave a bowl of hot rice sprinkled with lemongrass pork salt with his father, mother, and sisters more than ever.

Hot rice with lemongrass pork salt, undeniably fine dish.

My hometown is in the Central region of Vietnam, thousands of kilometers away from the city where I’m living. Back in the days I stayed with my family, whenever a storm or cold season was going to come, my mother often hurried to the market for ingredients, then to the kitchen to make her usual lemongrass pork salt and stored it. My family was big, so my mother usually made this dish for the whole family to eat through the food scarcity of the cold season.

Gradually, it became a habit, so, whenever a warning for the coming cold air announced on the radio, my sisters and I would nag our mother to make a lemongrass pork salt jar in time for the weather, but mostly to satisfy our desire for it.

To keep the lemongrass pork salt long-lasting while still retain its flavors, my mother had to go to market early to buy fresh chopped pork and chose the shoulder cut or the thigh; if not, then either the flank or the mixed lean and fat meat would still work. Then she bought some shrimp paste and some chili peppers. Other ingredients such as peanut, sesame, and lemongrass ... were already available at home. The process was complicated, but she always said it was fun to take care of the meals of the whole family, and more, because we, her children, loved it.

After washing the pork, my mother used a knife to mince the meat and marinated with salt, seasoning powder, pepper, chili, sugar and shrimp paste. One thing to pay attention to is when making this dish, one should not marinate it with fish sauce, as the meat would not come out dry when roasted. My mother would pick big, firm stalks of lemongrass from the garden, peeled the outer layers, washed, then sliced, chopped and roasted with cooking oil. The peanuts and sesame were roasted until they turn dark, and then grounded.

The marinated pork was put into a large pan and stirred in the medium fire. When the meat got a bit thinner, my mother added lemongrass, peanuts and sesame and continued to stir until the meat turned dark yellow and dry. When the lemongrass pork salt had completely cooled down, she poured it into a glass jar to reserve for the next days. We did not have to worry about food during stormy days.

Every time my mother makes this dish, the kitchen would become lively from the sound of children talking around. She would sharp-wittedly pick up the spoon and put a bit of lemongrass pork salt onto our palms. We all would become so excited and quickly taste our shares, then enjoy the flavors.

It was only a tiny pinch of lemongrass pork salt, yet it had so many tones of flavors hidden within. The sweetness of the meat, the saltiness of shrimp paste, the fattiness, crispiness of peanuts and sesames, the spiciness of pepper and chili, the strong aroma of lemongrass..., still finely stay within the lemongrass pork salt even months after.

We got the bowl of rice from our mother’s warm hands. Sprinkled on it are some lemongrass pork salt full of flavors and a mother’s love. Even though it might have been dark outside as the wind violently blew, and the storms raged, yet our hearts would always be so warm and calm.

Story and photo: Quyen Vinh

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