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State Dish: What’s the ‘Mater?

by Arkansas Life | July 7, 2020 at 6:00 a.m.

Growing up in Rogers, chef Vuong Nguyen was no stranger to Southern cooking. But as the owner of Saiwok Vietnamese Street Food, also in Rogers, he’s obviously no stranger to the cuisine of his family’s motherland either. In fact, one of the draws of Saiwok has always been its willingness to combine flavors and textures from multiple cuisines. One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes has long been its smoked pork belly fries, for example. Call it Southern-American-Asian fusion if you want. We just call it freaking delicious.

As a first-generation Vietnamese-American, Vuong got to experience it all. From traditional multicourse Vietnamese dinners at home with soup and stir fry and sides, to venison chili and bacon-wrapped wild game at friends’ houses, Vuong spent his childhood developing the unique palate that would inform his restaurant’s menu years down the road.

But when we suggested he give us his spin on the traditional Southern fried green tomato, it presented somewhat of a challenge for the Rogers chef, though a welcome one. Vuong says he’d only had the dish once before, back when he lived in Texas, so initially, he wasn’t sure how best to approach the ingredients. But it didn’t take long for the ideas to start flowing.

Chef Maudie Schmitt at Cafe Rue Orleans in Fayetteville, whom Vuong sourced the green tomatoes from, gave him a confidence boost right off the bat. “She literally told me, Do anything you can imagine because they can take it,” he says. And it turns out, Vuong can imagine quite a bit. After considering everything from tempura batter to young green rice to pork rinds for the breading, Vuong decided to do something truly outside the box.

“The one thing that you didn’t really see, typically, is people wrapping [them in] a mung-bean thread and frying the tomatoes because it adds like a different dimension of texture,” he says. But fried green tomatoes also need a sauce, Vuong thought—typically, a remoulade. In place of the the classic French/Creole condiment, however, the chef decided to embrace his Asian fusion roots and go with Sot Ca Chua, the sauteed tomato, garlic and shallot sauce that usually accompanies Vietnamese fried fish dishes. And for the finishing touch, Vuong topped the whole thing off with Xiu Mai, a Vietnamese pork meatball, and spicy sprouts.

“This challenge opened my mind to like, Dang, this is really stuff that could actually work at my restaurant,” Vuong says. So don’t be surprised if you see this recipe as a Saiwok special in the near future. In fact, we’ll race you there. 

Fried Green Tomatoes

Vietnamese Xiu Mai (Meatballs)

Ingredients

1 pound fatty ground pork (avoid too lean because it will make the meatballs dry)

2 shallots, finely diced

1/2 yellow onion, minced

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

2 teaspoon cornstarch

Directions

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and knead thoroughly, then form into meatballs. For best results, steam the meatballs until almost cooked since we will finish the cooking process in the tomato sauce.


Sot Ca Chua (Tomato Sauce)

Ingredients

2 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tomatoes, diced

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 shallot, finely diced

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions

While the meatballs are steaming, heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, shallot and garlic, and saute until aromatic. Add in the tomatoes, fish sauce, sugar, salt and black pepper, and allow to simmer for 15 minutes or until sauce reaches the desired thickness. Finish cooking the meatballs in the simmering sauce.


Fried Green Tomatoes

Ingredients

2 green tomatoes

Netted spring-roll wrappers (you can source these from your local Asian market—both mung bean and rice wraps work equally well)

1 bunch garden herbs (I use spicy sprouts, but you can also use cilantro, mint, chives, green onions, basil, dill or perilla)

Directions

Slice tomatoes into 1/4-inch slices. Wrap slices in the netted spring-roll wrapper (one slice per wrapper), and fry in a shallow pan of oil heated to 350 degrees. Be sure to use enough oil for the tomato slices to be submerged halfway. Cook for 30 to 45 seconds on each side, depending on the thickness. Top with the meatball and sauce, and garnish with garden herbs.

If you think this looks amazing, be sure to see what else chef Vuong is cooking up at Saiwok by visiting facebook.com/saiwok

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