Though perfect as a role player in a green papaya salad, jerky’s true calling comes as a solo act: a hand-held snack, whether over a few beers at the bar or as a mid-afternoon repast between classes for students. “With the [hot] temperatures in Vietnam, you can use it any time,” says Binh Nguyen, owner of Present. “It’s a nice dry food that you can pack. It doesn’t go bad.”
Kim Nguyen of Phu Quy (no relation to Binh) says men — yes, it’s almost always men — will drop by her store and pick up a pound or so of jerky before wandering over to one of the watering holes buried deep within the Eden Center. It may seem an atypical treat to accompany their beer, at least to Americans accustomed to their salty snacks of peanuts, pretzels and popcorn. But Kim Nguyen equates jerky, at least the spicier ones, to Buffalo wings. It’s the heat that drives a drinker’s lust (and a bar manager’s nodding approval to let customers bring the food inside).
“It makes you drink more,” Kim says.
That, in part, is what drives my current interest in Vietnamese jerky. (Not the inducement to drown myself in suds, but as a recurring option in my own snack rotation during this, the height of the sports-watching season.) Sure, I could just drive over to Phu Quy and purchase a couple of pounds of jerky, but between the price, the fuel and the stress of navigating through Washington’s soul-crushing traffic, I’d prefer to make my own at home.
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).
Phan’s version of beef jerky
calls for, essentially, braising top round in a soy-water-scallions mixture before cooling the meat, slicing it and coating the thin slices in a cooking liquid comprising fish sauce, water, soy sauce, honey, garlic, roasted chili paste, Thai chili peppers and crushed red pepper flakes. Despite the heavy presence of peppers, the resulting slices are decidedly savory and umami-rich, not spicy. Nor are they dehydrated and satisfyingly chewy. They remind me more of Korean bulgogi than Vietnamese jerky. Still, they are, without question, succulent and delicious.
Am I disappointed with Phan’s interpretation? On some striving-for-authenticity level, sure, but then the chef tells me he prefers to taste the beef in his jerky, not drown the meat under heat, aromatics and sugar. He also mentions that his jerky perfectly complements his green papaya salad recipe, which comes with a “very spicy” dressing. He seems to be implying that I should not judge his chef-driven jerky in the context of those commercial strips available here in the States.
I’ll have to ponder that as I nibble on my pound of Vietnamese jerky from Phu Quy.
Charles Phan’s Beef Jerky
Grilled Dried Beef (Thit Bo Kho)
Phu Quy Deli Delight 6799 Wilson Blvd. No. 7, Falls Church. 703-536-6106.
Song Que 6769 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church. 703-536-7900.
Present 6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 703-531-1881.