Refreshing is probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of noodles. Hearty, warm, or comforting maybe, but refreshing probably not. Well, let me introduce you to your new favorite way to eat noodles: cold, in a salad, with lots of fresh herbs, crunchy vegetables, and super flavorful meatballs.
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Yes, these Vietnamese Noodle Bowls with Lemongrass Pork Meatballs are exactly what you need in your noodle lineup.
Guys, Vietnam is HOT. And humid. And sweaty. One of the things we found amusing when visiting Vietnam is how it seems to be perfectly acceptable to walk around with your shirt up, belly exposed if you’re hot. The men did it quite frequently, and while we may have chuckled a bit when we first noticed it, it actually seems pretty effective. Sometimes you just gotta cool off, you know?
And if walking around with your belly out isn’t your thing (personally or culturally), then eating something cooling and refreshing is a pretty good idea too.
The anatomy of a good noodle bowl
A good noodle bowl (Bún in Vietnamese) is light, and crisp, and fresh. You’ve got rice noodles (duh) that are cooked then chilled. You’ve got crunchy vegetables – in this case cucumber and crisp romaine leaves. You’ve got a protein (more on that later). You’ve got nuoc cham as a dressing. And then to finish it all you’ve got crunchy peanuts and lots of fresh herbs.
The best bún, in my opinion, is bún chả. Remember the episode of Parts Unknown where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama share a meal in Vietnam together? They were eating bún chả.
This particular noodle bowl is not bún chả, but it’s awfully reminiscent of it. (Don’t worry, when I do recreate bún chả, you guys will be the first to know about it)
Lemongrass & Ginger Pork Meatballs
The real flavor in these noodle bowls comes from the pork meatballs, which have almost as many spices and herbs in them as they do pork. My kind of meatball.
The star ingredients are cilantro stems (yep, you heard that right), ginger, lemongrass, and chili garlic sauce. I’m kind of obsessed with chili garlic sauce currently. It’s been in a lot of the Asian inspired recipes from the Milk Street Tuesday Nights cookbook, and it’s such a great way to add lots of flavor to a dish.
You can use any type of rice noodle you have on hand in this recipe. A lot of Vietnamese noodle bowls are made with vermicelli rice noodles, but I like the bigger, thicker noodles better.
For this recipe, I used 3mm medium rice noodles. I always have a few packs of these on hand, because they’re so quick and easy to cook. They take only 3-4 minutes in boiling water, and then they get rinsed immediately in cold water. Noodles in 5 minutes sounds pretty great to me.
The pork meatballs and rice noodles might be the main ingredients, but it’s everything else that really make these noodle bowls shine. Fresh cilantro and mint are what give the dish its undeniable freshness. Make sure you have lots of extra for people to add more if they want.
Peanuts give the noodle bowls some good crunch, and the cucumber and romaine leaves do the same. The soft rice noodles and crunchy extras go really well together.
And then there’s also the nuoc cham. A similar dipping sauce has made an appearance on this blog before when I made another favorite from Hanoi, cha ca.
This nuoc cham is a combination of water, lime juice, fish sauce (don’t be scared, just trust me!), brown sugar, and chilis. It’s spicy, sweet, savory, and a little sour all at the same time. Make a lot of this – you won’t regret it.
Putting it all together
To serve these noodle bowls, I recommend getting the noodles, sauce, and garnishes ready first then cooking the meatballs last. Hot meatballs with the cold noodles provide great contrast.
Each bowl gets cold rice noodles, romaine lettuce, cucumber, herbs, peanuts, and finally the meatballs. Everything gets coated with the nuoc cham.
This doesn’t keep all that well in the fridge because the rice noodles take on a weird texture. So don’t plan on having any leftovers. I have a feeling you wouldn’t have any anyway. These noodle bowls are addictive.
Vietnamese Noodle Bowls
These Vietnamese Noodle Bowls made with Lemongrass and Ginger Pork Meatballs are bright, crisp, and refreshing!
For the Meatballs:
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 tbsp light brown sugar
- 1 tbsp chili garlic sauce
- 2 tbsp chopped green onion
- 3 tsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp chopped lemongrass
- 2 tbsp minced ginger
- 2 tbsp finely chopped cilantro stems
- 1 large egg beaten
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
For the Nuoc Cham
- 1 ½ cup lukewarm water
- Heaping ¼ cup light brown sugar
- ½ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- 2 small thai chilis sliced
For the Noodle Bowls
- 12 oz medium rice noodles
- 1 large English cucumber sliced in bite sized pieces
- 2 cups torn romaine lettuce
- ½ cup chopped mint
- ½ cup chopped cilantro
- ¼ cup chopped peanuts
To make the meatballs
Start by making the meatballs. Combine ground pork, brown sugar, chili garlic sauce, green onion, fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro stems and egg in a large bowl. Mix to combine
Form small meatballs using around 1 tbsp of the mixture at a time. You should have 16 meatballs. Let chill in the refrigerator for 5 minutes.
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat and add the vegetable oil. Add the meatballs and sear for 7 minutes on the first side. Flip and cook another 5 minutes on the second side.
While the meatballs cook, prepare the garnishes, nuoc cham, and rice noodles
Cook the rice noodles in boiling water for 3-4 minutes. Drain and immediately rinse thoroughly in very cold water. Allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready for use.
To make the nuoc cham
To make the nuoc cham, combine the lukewarm water and brown sugar in a mixing bowl. Stir until the sugar is dissolved
Add lime juice, fish sauce, and chilis and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking
To make the noodle bowls
Divide the rice noodles evenly between 4 bowls. Do the same with the cucumber and romaine leaves.
Add 4 meatballs to each bowl and top each bowl with 1/4 of the mint, cilantro, and peanuts.
Allow each person to add the nuoc cham to their liking to their bowl. Serve with extra peanuts and herbs on the side.