Vietnamese meatballs (nem nuong) recipe

Posted on February 24, 2012

Note: New recipe posted 15 January 2013, see this link

Staying on the topic of barbeques of the Asian variety, one of my good friends hosts an annual barbeque to celebrate his birthday. And every year, without fail, I will attend because 1. I’m a good friend and 2. his sister makes the best nem nuong (Vietnamese meatballs). For me, she has completely nailed the taste and texture. The meat is fragrant, sweet, succulent and has a fabulous springiness to it. Yum! As you may be able to deduce; it’s the first thing I look for at his barbeques!

Trawling online for a nem nuong recipe that would yield me the same tasty treats was next to impossible. Who knew there would be so many variations? Luke Nguyen makes his with fish paste and pork mince, others use pork mince only and yet others would use a mixture of pork and prawn mince. Which of these would deliver me those sweet and bouncy little parcels of meat? In the end, I ended up just begging my friend to extract the recipe from his sister. I’m not 100% sure if she would like her secret recipe revealed and even with the elusive recipe in hand, I couldn’t resist my urge to tweak.

The verdict? It’s a tasty enough rendition, but it did not deliver what I’d hoped for. I was certain that I was only tweaking a minor component of the recipe, and I believed that I had preserved the key ingredient. The key being the use of headless prawns with their shells intact. Of all the recipes I found online, none of them used prawns still in their shell. I was convinced the shell was what made her nem nuong have that slightly crunchy yet elastic nature to it. Well, it would appear that that wasn’t the only essential ingredient.

Her recipe, like many others online, also called for the use of a curing powder (which would contain things like salt, sugar, meat tenderiser and potentially MSG), and perhaps rather stupidly I decided to omit this to meet a warped ideal of  keeping my cooking free of MSG. This resulted in nem nuong that wasn’t quite as sweet, nor did it have the same springy texture that I so coveted. You can be sure that my next attempt will most definitely follow her recipe to the tee!

In any case, you haven’t the original to compare to, and may not even like the idea of sweet and springy meatballs, which would then lead me to conclude that perhaps you will find some use of my variation. But perhaps shell your prawns, I’m not sure how she gets them fine enough, but I still had shards in mine which I didn’t really like.

RECIPE – Vietnamese meatballs aka nem nuong (serves 4)


  • 400g frozen headless prawns (with shells intact for this experiment)
  • 200g pork mince
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced lemongrass
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon uncooked rice


  1. In a small pan, dry toast the uncooked rice. When the rice turns a light golden colour remove from heat and grind into a powder. Reserve.
  2. In a food processor, process the unshelled prawns until it resembles a thick paste. You will need to process the mixture for a while to ensure you don’t have large pieces of shell remaining.
  3. Transfer prawn paste from processor to a mortar and pestle and pound the meat until it has a sticky consistency. The pounding of the meat is what will give it a springy texture.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the prawn paste with the remaining ingredients (including the toasted rice powder) and mix well.
  5. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
  6. Roll a tablespoon of mixture into a ball and grill on medium to high heat. You can also skewer the meat, just remember to soak your bamboo skewers in water for about 30 minutes to prevent them from burning on the grill.

Like most meatballs, nem nuong can be served in a number of ways. Some of the common ones include: skewered, with bun (rice noodle) and salad, with banh hoi (fine rice vermicelli patties) and salad or in a Vietnamese roll. They’re good any way in my humble opinion, however my pick is with banh hoi.

Banh hoi can be purchased from selected Asian groceries (the Vietnamese ones) and just requires reheating in the microwave for a minute or so. To make sure your banh hoi resembles the restaurants, spread a bit of spring onion oil over the patties and sprinkle generously with crushed toasted peanuts. To make spring onion oil, finely chop 1 spring onion and place into a small heat proof bowl. Heat up 1.5 tablespoons of oil until smoking and pour over the chopped spring onions. Bob’s your uncle.

As a finishing touch, add some fresh greens and don’t forget the very aromatic Vietnamese mint! To eat, just grab a bit of everything, wrap a piece of lettuce (or other leafy green) around it, dip into some savory sauce and munch away. With the sauce, most people will prefer eating it with a prepared fish sauce, Luke Nguyen suggested hoisin sauce but I like it with just a little soy. Who said barbequed meatballs are bad for you? This is an exceptionally light way to enjoy them.