Vietnam holds my first memories, some of them horrific: the bloodiest days of 1968’s “Little Tet” Offensive in May, marked in my mind by a US Army chopper firing rockets into a Vietcong machine gun post in a Saigon highrise; waking up in the public recovery room at the US Army’s hospital at Tan Son Nhut, among Vietnamese civilians wounded in the war…all well recorded in my 2004 Amazon Topseller memoir.
Other memories as the son of an American expat businessman, weren’t so traumatic and actually quite pleasant: skiing up and down the Saigon River to the Club Nautique (no, the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction wasn’t playing on the transistor radio) , trips to Dalat and Vung Tau, and my first taste of grilled venison noodle salad, otherwise known as Bun Thit Nuong Xa, thit nai being the venison (“meat deer” syntax) and xa the lemongrass that I think makes any wild game that much better.
The restaurant was in Saigon and I think we started going there in 1970 and continued as patrons until our leaving in 1972. Owned by a Frenchman and his Vietnamese wife, and dimly lit for romance it had a décor that would have made Graham Greene envious, but it was the food that made it one of the better-known restaurants in Saigon.
Bun Thit Nai Nuong Xa was only one of what were several courses required of business dinners designed for schmoozing clients, and especially bringing the family as family is very important in Asia. Company wining and dining budgets sure helped keep a family of four fed in those days. All I cared about though, as a boy of seven and then eight, was that big bowl of rice noodles topped by a mound of venison darkened by fire and sweet to the taste.
Over the years since I started deer hunting, I’ve played with the idea of putting it together as I remembered. Often, though, I’d just make a venison chili, marinated steaks, or an oven roast. As I’ve matured in my tastes and trained myself to recognize the different spices that make up dishes, I finally asked myself, what was it about that dish, aside from great tasting venison (probably a muntjac deer hunted by some Degar hunter in the Central Highlands, or a market hunter on one of the rubber plantations)?
When I shot such an amazingly tender mule deer up near Alturas, CA with the great assistance of newfound friends this last deer season, I suddenly got a bug to expand more than the normal repertoire of venison meals. For a meal with such a variety of aromatics and flavor, Bun Thit Nai Nuoung Xa turns out to be a very easy dish to prepare.
In California, it’s pretty easy to keep a stand of lemongrass growing all year in the Bay Area and Southern California; in a mini greenhouse, everywhere else, all year long. Makes a great tea with or without sugar and shows up in a majority of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai dishes, making it a worthwhile addition to anyone’s yard or window herb garden.
Finally, I said yesterday would be the day I made Bun Thit Nai Nuong Xa…and when I was done, I wondered why it too me so long: like my ours bourguignon that tastes better than beef bourguignion, Bun Thit Nai Nuong Xa tastes better than Bun Thit Nuong, i.e. the normal restaurant variety made with farmed pork…or the chicken and beef varieties for that matter.
…Yes, it’s that good!
Now you can purchase venison from ranches, but as far as I’m concerned farmed-raised deer is just a very lean beefsteak that used to have antlers instead of steer horns. Farm-raised means drugs, if even the lightest amount of antibiotics, and worst, fed a regulated diet of pellets and feed that comes in bags for improved muscle growth for weight at the market…all thanks to the USDA: we wonder why there’s obesity in the US?
If you want to get true organic venison, one that has been feeding on a variety of naturally occurring flora, living life in the wilds, absorbing all that made us that more connected to the healing qualities of the Earth, you’re going to have to get your venison with a gun or bow, or have a friend willing to share…
And while I’d never hunt muntjac in Asia as they’re definitely endangered there, I’d sure hunt them in Ireland and the UK where increasing numbers run the risk of a detrimental effect on native species of deer…as for New Zealand, with its low human population and major red deer populations hunting’s a given.
Now there are a lot of Vietnamese BBQ meat noodle salad recipes out there, but I’ve been enjoying reading the Vietnamese recipes published by the Ravenous Couple. Many of their recipes bring me back to the ones my mom learned from her Saigonese friends. Of course, as with all the recipes designed for meat from farm animals, I had to modify for wild game…
I wanted the venison to stand out, which means I had to remove some ingredients in the salad, and add to, and modify the marinade to deal with the dryness of venison—you’d be amazed at what good molasses can do!
Here is the recipe and please remember to comeback to make a comment below once you’ve finished enjoying your home cooked Bun Thit Nai Nuoung Xa–like traditional publications, it costs money to bring these articles FREE to YOU, paid for and supported by advertisers…part of which is attracted by rankings on Google, which is added to by the number of comments…You clicking on advertising links and making sure to make a comment on something you enjoyed means we’re able to keep bringing you useful information..and if you have a blog, too, the link to your blog through your comment brings your ranking up, too: win-win–Thank you and bon apetit!
If you’ve not got a local Asian foods market, you might find these ingredients and other things at Amazon worth ordering:
Bun Thit Nai Nuong Xa (BBQ Venison Noodle Salad) [Recipe]
- 1-2 lbs of moose, blacktail, whitetail, mule deer or elk sliced ¼-inch thick and large enough so they won’t fall through a fish BBQ grill
- 1 Cucumber cut in half, or quartered and then julienned
- A bunch each of fresh mint, Thai basil, and cilantro some rolled and sliced, some leaves left whole for the chopped salad
- One package of rice vermicelli
- 2 green scallion minced
- 1 tbs peanut oil
- 3 tbs fresh peanuts coarsely ground then roasted.
- 1/4 cup minced Lemongrass (Xa) stalk [Cut the stalk an inch from the ground and trim off the green leaves to boil in water for a great tea]
- 1/4 cup brown sugar—you can use refined sugar, but I think the added molasses adds something special.
- 2 tbs fish sauce (Nuoc Mam—“water fish”)
- 1 tsp ground pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced (use more according to taste)
- 2-3 shallots, minced, or a tbs of thinly sliced red onions
- 1 tbs sesame oil
- 2 tbs soy sauce
- 1-2 tbs of molasses
Nuoc Mam Cham (This is the sweet delicious dipping sauce you get served with Chai Gios [Imperial Rolls])
- ½ cup Nuoc Mam (Fish Sauce)
- 1 cup cold water
- 2 tbs brown sugar
- 2-3 tbs white vinegar
- 1 tsp fresh lime juice
- 1 Thai bird chili finely chopped
NOTE: Personally, I never started adding the vinegar until a friend of mine who escaped Hanoi on a refugee boat, and started the best Hanoi-style noodle shop in San Francisco, called Loi’s—and after a long hiatus started Cheramoya in Burlingame—turned me onto his use of vinegar.
And even this recipe I just mess around with above for my own tastes everytime I cook…
Everyone…and I mean EVERYONE has his or her own family take on this sauce in Vietnam. I’ve had it salty. I have had it bitter…and I’ve had it so sickeningly sweet I should have poured it on a strawberry sundae—you have my permission to experiment! 😉
- Mix the marinade to taste. Remember, everyone has different tastebuds and cultural tastes. Myself, I start with the recipe I’ve put together and add and subtract at each cooking session to make sure the marinade tastes exactly the way I like it.
- Immerse and stir the venison in the marinade. Cover and set in the refrigerator for at least an hour. I like to let it set for 2-3 hours to really get that marinade to the core.
- Start up the grill. I prefer to use a small Weber–and use charcoal…gas sucks. If you use a large one, you have to fill it up with a lot of charcoal. With a small Weber, I get high heat without wasting a bunch of charcoal—you want that meat right down there, almost touching the coals to really sear and get the molasses to crust over. Crusting helps keep the normally dry venison moist.
- Place the meat in a fish and vegetable basket grill and place on the grill.
- Cook the meat on one side for 2-3 minutes (we’re talking high heat here) until browning and slight blacking of tips…all that caramelizing for great taste!
- Remove the venison from the fire. Might be sticking, so let it cool on the grill so that it’s not falling to pieces as you remove it from the basket grill.
- While the meats resting, roast the ground peanuts in a dry frying pan to brown them slightly and bring out their flavor, then set aside.
- Heat up the peanut oil, or cottonseed oil can work, and fry the minced scallions until slightly sweated and then place on a paper towel to remove some of the oil and set aside.
- Boil the package of rice vermicelli, drain and set aside—if you want your noodles cold, then I suggest doing this first, or while the meat is marinating.
- In a soup bowl (if you have an actual Pho bowl of china, so much the better), place some of the chopped salad, then a layer of the rice vermicelli.
- Slice the cooked venison into large bite sizes easily picked up by chopsticks and place on top.
- Top with a light sprinkling of the prepared scallions and peanuts
- Serve with chopsticks and small bowl of the nuoc mam cham for your guests to dip the venison, or just pour over the whole dish and mix.