Building a Better Ball: Thai and Vietnamese Noodle Soups

At any given waking moment, and certainly in my dreams, I want a bowl of Thai or Vietnamese noodle soup. It’s my desert island dish and my lost on the tundra dish. I want it when I’m well, and need it when I’m not. Deeply savoury-sweet, lifted by lime, electric with zaps of chili heat, heady with the scents of ginger and lemongrass, Thai basil or cilantro. A riot of sensations: slippery noodles, crispy bean sprouts and crunchy crumbled chicharrones, bouncy meatballs, chewy brisket and tender raw sirloin.

Kuaytiaw Muu Naam Sai – Thai noodle soup with pork with homemade meatballs

But we need to talk about those balls. In many phở joints and in the freezer cases of Asian grocers, the quality of the meatballs can be terrible: gristly, tough rather than springy, and tasting of chemicals and freezer burn. Imprinted with the contours of the plastic bag they’re sealed in.

Homemade Phở Tái Bò Viên – Beef Phở with rare beef and sad, store-bought beef meatballs

The good news is that it’s easy to make Thai Luuk Chin and Vietnamese Bò Viên at home. All you need is good ground meat with a decent amount of fat, starch (sweet potato starch is ideal – you can find that at any Asian market – but potato starch or cornstarch will do), some commonly available seasonings, and a food processor.

My go-to cookbooks for Thai and Vietnamese noodle soups are, respectively, “POK POK Noodles: Recipes from Thailand and Beyond,” by Andy Ricker; and “The PHO Cookbook,” by Andrea Nguyen. The recipe below is an amalgam of the meatball recipes from both. Each book contains more detailed instructions for forming the meatballs, but the method below should get you there.

  • 1 lb Ground pork or beef, medium or lean (not extra lean). If you’re grinding your own, I recommend pork shoulder or a blend of beef chuck and brisket.
  • 1.5 Tbsp Starch (sweet potato and potato starch will give a delicate texture, and cornstarch will give a “snappier” product)
  • 5 oz Ice cubes (these will keep the fat in emulsion while you process the mixture, and will lend a delicate texture to the meatballs)
  • 2 Tbsp fish sauce or 2.5 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp Ground white pepper (for pork balls) or black pepper (for beef)
  • 1 Garlic clove, minced
  • Optional: 1/2 tsp Sesame oil (toasted), 1/2 tsp Sugar (granulated)

Method: Place all ingredients in the bowl of your food processor. Process for 4 minutes, stopping as needed to scrape down the side of the bowl and to rest your machine if it gets hot. You should end up with a glossy, smooth mixture:

Put the mixture in a bowl and let it chill in the fridge for half an hour or so. This will ensure that the fat stays emulsified (preventing a grainy, greasy meatball) and will make the mixture easier to work with.

Next, get some of the air out of the mix to improve the texture and coherence of the balls. Andy Ricker recommends picking the mixture up and smacking it against the bowl several times. If you happen to have an insanely over-pimped kitchen that includes a chamber vacuum (I meekly raise my hand), you can put the mixture in a bag and pull a strong vacuum; this will remove much of the air and leave you with a nice, compact piping bag that you’ll use in the next step.

Get yourself set up with a medium-sized pot of gently simmering water and a bowl of very hot tap water. You’ll be forming the balls, plunking them into the bowl until you have a single layer on the bottom of the bowl, then poaching them.

The mixture is delicate and sticky, so you can’t use the Italian meatball method of rolling the mixture between your palms. You can use one of two methods to form the balls:

Spoon method: Take two spoons. Scoop up a one-inch blob of meat goop with one of them. Swipe it back and forth between the spoons until you have a rough ball or quenelle shape. Drop it into the bowl of tap water.

Bag method: Put the meat goop in a plastic bag or piping bag. Snip off a 1/2 inch corner. Hold the bag with the tip facing up and into your opposite hand. Squeeze the goop out, simultaneously applying pressure on top of the emerging goop and sweeping your index finger under it to form a rough ball. Wet your other hand and, using your wrist, roll the ball around in your palm (one-handed) so it forms something approximating a sphere. Drop it into the bowl of tap water.

Finally, poach the balls in gently simmering water for six minutes. Remove one and slice it open to ensure that it’s cooked. Remove the balls with a spider and let them cool a bit on a tray before refrigerating them. Then use them in the recipe of your choice.

I used some of this batch of Luuk Chin in bowls of Kuaytiaw Muu Naam Sai: Thai noodle soup with pork. I started with a lean pork stock from Pok Pok, flavoured with garlic, ginger, cilantro, lemongrass, daikon, green onions, Chinese celery and white peppercorns.

To accompany the dish, I prepared:

  • Thinly sliced Serrano peppers soaked in distilled white vinegar
  • Thinly sliced Thai red chilies soaked in fish sauce
  • Toasted and coarsely ground guajillo chilli peppers
  • Coarse demerara sugar
  • Finely diced garlic, fried in neutral oil
  • Coarsely crumbled unseasoned pork rind (i.e., chicharrones)
  • Chopped cilantro and sliced scallions

To build the bowl, I started with a dollop of the garlic oil and a sprinkling of the fried garlic, 1/2 tsp of granulated sugar, and a Tbsp of fish sauce.

I then loaded up a long-handled noodle basket with some pre-soaked rice stick noodles, a bit of thinly sliced pork loin marinated in fish sauce, a few pork balls, and a handful of bean sprouts. I immersed the basket in a pot of boiling water for about a minute, dumped it into the prepared bowl, and ladled plenty of hot pork stock on top.

So. Damn. Good.

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