Today is all about comfort food.
When I think back about the food that I often ate in my childhood, this one stands out the most. I remember my mom used to cook this dish a lot, now come to think of it, the reason must be because I, as a child, loved the dish so much. I remember whenever I saw the pork cutlets among the ingredients mom bought from the market, I just knew she’d make this dish.
Whenever I ate this dish, I’d eat it so slow. I’d chew on a piece of meat for dozens of minutes on end to savor every flavor infused in the pork meat. First the sweetness and saltiness of the gravy would come out, then the natural taste of pork and its texture would provide me with a happy chewing session until the piece of meat'd feel like chewing gum, only then I’d swallow. From my experiences with kids, they love to chew on this kind of braised meat more than the grilled one. Maybe it’s a common trait. How about yours?
This pork cutlets dish is also the first Vietnamese food that I cooked when I came here, in France. Back then everything was still new and strange to me. I met a senior of my Vietnamese college who helped me a lot in settling in. At that time he was about to come back to Vietnam after finishing his degree so he and his mates spent a lot of time packing things up that he didn’t have time to cook anything. So I made this dish for them and they loved it. Maybe because it tasted like home. Whenever I cook this dish, I’m always reminded of happy memories and acts of kindness from people who didn’t know me but helped me out anyway. Those moments are so heart-warming and touching that this dish crystallizes in my mind as comfort food all the way.
The Vietnamese name for this dish is “coc lech” or “cot lech” which derives from the French word “côtelettes”. The ways to pronounce the words are similar too. To this day Vietnamese still use lots of French words for everyday things, like “xo” (seau) for buckets or “ghi dong” (guidon) for bicycle’s handlebar among many others. They’re a result of the colonialism from late 1800s to 1945s. The French culture permeates most aspects of Vietnamese culture that sometimes we’re not aware which is French influence and which is Vietnamese culture. Just take the famous Vietnamese “banh mi” for example. Vietnamese learned to make the loaf of bread from French bread, and then incorporated their own ingredients to make it a distinctly outstanding sandwich. Grew up eating this sandwich for most of my breakfasts, I didn't even think about the similarities. These cultural tidbits always fascinate me!
The Vietnamese “cot lech” means a distinct dish cooked in a certain way. Of course we use pork cutlets for this dish for sure, but the cutlets must be first infused in the marinade, then pan-seared for a beautiful caramel color and lastly cooked in the marinade until we obtain a thick golden brown gravy. It is meant to eat as a main dish in ordinary Vietnamese family meal along with soup and vegetables side-dish. Shall we start?
Ingredients: (4 servings)
4 big pork cutlets (about 150 gr each)
2 tblspoons of sugar
4 tblspoons of fish sauce (or substitute with 3 tblspoons of fish sauce and 1 tblspoon of soy sauce)
200 ml water (nearly 1 cup) or broth
1 pinch of salt and black pepper
2 cloves of garlic, slightly mashed
1 small chunk of ginger of about 2 tspoons, slightly mashed (optional)
1 tblspoon of soy sauce (optional)
1 tspoon of chili powder (optional)
Spring onion or cilantro for garnish (optional)
1. Marinate the pork cutlets at least 2 hours before cooking (or even overnight). Combine 3 tblspoons of fish sauce if use 4 tblspoons OR 2 tblspoons of fish sauce and 1 tblspoon of soy sauce, sugar, salt, black pepper, 2 tblspoons of water with 1 tblspoon of vegetable oil for the marinade. Let the cutlets be marinated in the fridge.
2. When the cutlets are ready, heat vegetable oil in a pan on medium-high heat. Put in the mashed garlic and ginger to infuse the oil with their flavors. Stir them until they turn brown on the edges then take them out.
3. Now turn the heat on higher, on high heat, and sear the cutlets until they’re brown-seared on both sides in the infused oil (it should take about 4 minutes for each). Remember to store the marinade for later use.
4. When the cutlets are beautifully seared, pour in the marinade and lower the heat. Add the last tblspoon of fish sauce and chili powder and cook the cutlets with the lid on until they become soft. This step takes around 20 - 25 minutes or more, depends on the thickness of the cutlets.
The dish doesn’t need any garnish but you can add cilantro or spring onion to your liking.
Slightly cut through the edge of the cutlet will help it keep the shape when cooked. If not the pieces will have funny looking curves, like they can’t handle the heat.
The reason I reserved the last tblspoon of fish sauce for the last step is because the dish may be too salty for your taste. So you don’t have to add it in the end, just adjust and find the right balance for you. Another reason is that I want to build the flavors in layers, so that the gravy is a bit more salty than the cutlet. Because Vietnamese eat this dish by pouring the gravy over rice, it must be more salty than the meat.
You can add the fried garlic and ginger back in the pan when you add the water or broth and let them be cooked with the cutlets. This way nothing goes to waste.
You don't need to add the chili powder. I just love my cutlets to be a bit spicy, that's why I chose the chili powder. If you don’t like the heat, just leave it out.
If you want to experience a Vietnamese 3 dishes meal, cook this pork cutlet dish with taro soup and pickles or stir-fried veggies and garlic. The different textures and flavors will give you a satisfactory meal.
Most of all, have fun with it and do share with me your favorite comfort food. I'm all ears.
Happy chewing session :D!
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!