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 at the Eden Center in Falls Church 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, as if someone made jerky out of Fozzie Bear.
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.
“He wasn’t very good,” Phan recalls. “He didn’t make money making beef 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.”
The takeaway here, for me at least, is that the line between the different jerkys found in Asia is perhaps more malleable and less rigidly nationalistic than for other foodstuffs. Frankly, I’ll leave that discussion to food anthropologists with more time on their hands. I prefer the simple pleasures of sampling widely at Phu Quy, where Nguyen will ply you with as many samples as your palate can handle. This is a smart business practice. Her jerky is not cheap, which may explain why the deli’s name roughly translates into “wealthy” and “successful,” because you need to be one or both to shop here regularly.