To anyone who has pulled back the protective wrapper on a rubbery Slim Jim after a late-night run to the convenience store, the 21 plastic bins inside the Phu Quy Deli Delight in Falls Church, Va., must seem as alien as fermented fish sauce to an A.1. man.
Each of those 21 bins is filled with jerky made by Vua Kho Bo, a California-based dried snack company whose name translates into, more or less, the “king of beef jerky.” There are pieces of dehydrated beef flavored with chili flakes, curry powder, lemon grass, sugar, black pepper, orange juice and barbecue seasonings. There are jerkys cut into cubes, sliced into strips or even shredded and laced with cashews. One might be the burnt-orange color of leaves in fall, another could be as crimson as ripe September apples. Some are as dry as cinnamon sticks, others as chewy and sticky as candied bacon. One or two are downright fuzzy.
All of them, collectively, fall under the deliciously addictive, difficult-to-define category of Vietnamese jerky.
I say “difficult to define” because the more I learn about the (generally unsmoked) Vietnamese subset of the jerky industry, the less I seem to understand it. Charles Phan, the James Beard Award-decorated chef and owner of the Slanted Door in San Francisco, theorizes that the chewy cured beef has its origins in China, whose influence has been felt on Vietnam for centuries. Phan even has firsthand evidence: His father, who fled Communist China for Vietnam in the early 1950s, used to make his own jerky.
Based on his own observations, Phan says the jerky found in Vietnam is, by and large, produced by families of Chinese origin and is “so close to the stuff I’ve seen in Hong Kong.” Interestingly enough, Vietnam native Kim Nguyen, proprietor of Phu Quy, tells me the owners of Vua Kho Bo are Taiwanese, though the company is producing snacks largely for a Vietnamese market. Or, perhaps more accurately, for the Vietnamese American market, because many of Vua Kho Bo’s products would probably never be found in Vietnam and tend to downplay the heat compared with the jerky back in Nguyen’s home country.
“In Vietnam, ours is a little bit spicier and not as sweet as Chinese and Hong Kong” jerky, says Nguyen. “We like fish sauce. They like soy sauce. The soy sauce is a little bit sweeter.”
There are certainly plenty of recipes for Asian-style jerky at your fingertips, many buried deep in the bowels of the Internet. But two new cookbooks offer more home-style recipes to test your skill at jerky-making. Canadian food writer Naomi Duguid has included one in her latest effort, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor” (Artisan), suggesting you even try your hand at air-drying the spice-rubbed meat for a few days. The one I tested was tucked into Phan’s debut cookbook, “Vietnamese Home Cooking” (Ten Speed Press).
Charles Phan’s Beef Jerky
2 cups light soy sauce
8 scallions, trimmed and cut into 3-inch lengths
2 pounds beef top round
1 cup water
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon roasted chili paste (see headnote)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 teaspoons minced garlic (from 3 medium cloves)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon seeded, minced Thai chili pepper
3 tablespoons canola oil
Combine 1½ cups of the soy sauce, the scallions and 8 cups of water in a large pot. Add the beef and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and cook uncovered for 1¼ hours, adjusting the heat so the liquid is barely bubbling at the edges. Transfer the beef to a cutting board to cool to room temperature. Discard the cooking liquid.
Combine the 1 cup of water, the remaining ½ cup of soy sauce, the honey, chili paste, fish sauce, 2 teaspoons of the garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, Thai chili pepper and salt to taste in a large bowl. Whisk to mix well.
When the beef has cooled, cut the meat with the grain into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Add the slices to the mixture in the bowl and toss to coat.
Heat the oil in a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon garlic and cook, stirring, for 15 seconds, until the garlic is fragrant. Pour the beef and its marinade into the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has completely evaporated and the beef is glazed with the marinade.
Set a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet and arrange the beef slices on the rack in a single layer. Let the meat cool to room temperature. The meat will be moister than American beef jerky but still chewy. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for up to 4 days. Serves 8.
Note: This is jerky in name only: The slices are moist, savory and umami-rich. They’re delicious, but they’re not jerky in the traditional sense of dehydrated meat. Jarred, roasted chili paste is available at Asian grocery stores. It is sometimes labeled chili bean paste or sate paste.
– Adapted from “Vietnamese Home Cooking”
Spice-Rubbed Burmese Jerky
2 tablespoons coriander seed
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
3 tablespoons peeled, minced ginger root (from a 4-inch piece)
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon salt
2 pounds boneless beefsteak, such as flank or skirt steak, or boneless pork shoulder
Peanut oil, for frying
Use a spice grinder to grind the coriander seed to a powder. Transfer the powder to a mortar or small food processor along with the turmeric, ginger, cayenne and salt. Pound or process to a paste.
Cut the meat thinly across the grain into strips just under 1 inch wide and about 4 inches long. Transfer the strips to a large bowl, add the spice paste and use your hands to rub it thoroughly into the meat. (If using both beef and pork, place them in separate bowls and use half of the spice paste for each meat.)
To air-dry the meat, hang it in a spot out of direct sunlight for 1½ to 2 days, or longer if the air is very humid. Thread one end of each meat strip onto a long metal skewer, leaving ½ inch between the individual strips, and suspend the skewers so the meat hangs freely. You’ll need about six skewers.
To dry the meat in the oven, lay the strips on a rack set over a roasting pan so the air can circulate. Bake at the lowest possible temperature (usually 170 degrees). Turn the meat after 1½ to 2 hours, then bake for 1 hour. The dried meat will be lighter in weight but not completely dry. It can be wrapped and refrigerated for up to 3 days.
When ready to cook, cut the meat strips crosswise into bite-size pieces. Line a platter with several layers of paper towels. Heat a large wok or skillet over medium-high heat and pour in oil to a depth of ½ inch. When the oil shimmers, slide in a handful of the meat pieces without crowding them. Cook the meat, turning it frequently, until it is tender, 3 or 4 minutes, then transfer it to the paper towels to drain. Repeat to cook all of the meat. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 8.
Note: You can take a shortcut and dry meat in a low oven for several hours. Just before serving, the meat is sliced and lightly fried.
– Adapted from “Burma: Rivers of Flavor”