A Tribute to Little Saigon
The Mills/50 area of Orlando is home to a small, industrious group of Vietnamese immigrants. Many fled their homeland in the 1970’s and settled here as war refugees. With them came a different language and alphabet, food, art and culture. Many of the more fascinating offerings in Little Saigon are on side streets or tucked away from view, so it is best explored on foot.
Vietnamese food is considered one of the healthiest on the planet. They are champions of whole animal usage and even here in Orlando you will find offerings from the fifth quarter: tendon, tripe, liver, ears, necks, giblets, tongues and beyond. The Vietnamese waste nothing. This practice may have been born out of poverty, long wars, and political conflict, but it lives on as comfort food, a history we share with many comfort foods born here in the southern US.
We wanted to pay homage to Little Saigon with an offering of our own. So we applied their principles to the ingredients that we like to work with. First, we placed a call to our local pig farmer, Jim Wood, at Palmetto Creek Farms to see if he was sitting on any inventory that he needed help moving. Sometimes food trends leave farmers stuck with cuts that aren’t finding their way onto menus. Sometimes it's pork bellies, sometimes it's pig heads. This time it just happened to be loins. So we took four big pork loins off their hands.
We seasoned our Vietnamese Bacon with Saigon cinnamon, ginger, black peppercorn, and chili flake. Saigon cinnamon is an indigenous evergreen native to mainland Southeast Asia. It is a closer relative to cassia rather than true cinnamon and the bark is used widely in the famous Vietnamese phở broths. Vietnam is the largest producer of black pepper, producing about 185,000 metric tons in 2016-2017. Ginger and chilies are also Vietnamese exports and are widely used throughout Vietnamese cuisine.
After a generous rub with the Vietnamese spices, we cured our bacon under refrigeration with some raw, natural sea salt from Celtic Sea Salt, our friends up in Asheville, NC. We use a fine salt because we want to fully expose all of the pork to the preserving qualities of the salt. Since we will be hanging this at near room temperature for several weeks, we add a small amount of sodium nitrate which will convert to sodium nitrite during the dry cure period. This helps to eliminate the risk of foodborne pathogens which could compromise the safety of our bacon.
After a thorough rinse, we re-apply fresh spices and hang our bacon in a controlled environment that provides gently moving air flow. Our dry cure locker maintains a temperature of 55F and a humidity level of 70%. We’ll weigh our bacon, record the weight, and monitor it regularly looking for a target weight loss of about 30%.
Once the bacon has reached its target weight we cold smoke it for about an hour in our fancy Cookshack smoker. We like to use either apple wood or pecan wood. We have a farmer who is kind enough to drop off pecan wood when he does his trimming and pruning. Fruit woods impart a soft, gentle smoke quality that doesn’t overpower the flavor of the pork and spices.
The Vietnamese Bacon is then sliced up and packaged.
Use this bacon the same way that you would use pancetta. It can be diced up and added to breakfast hashes and scrambled eggs. It adds a spicy sweetness to bitter veggies like broccoli rabe or Chinese broccoli (Cai Lan). Sprinkle it on baked potatoes or sweet potatoes. It’s pretty versatile stuff. And most importantly, it tells a story.