Vietnamese meatballs (nem nuong) recipe take 2

Posted on January 15, 2013


I’ve got a confession to make. Contrary to what I said last year, I did not go back to follow my friend’s sister’s nem nuong recipe to the tee. I was going to, but then when I picked up the bag of nem nuong curing powder, I was convinced out of it. My partner in crime took one look at the packet’s ingredient list (sugar, salt, MSG and potassium nitrate) and vetoed my use of it. In what can only be described as a cunning use of reverse psychology, I was won over with this golden line: “I thought you were a good enough cook not to cheat”. Well, to channel Barney Stinson: challenge accepted!

Of course this required further tweaking of the recipe my friend gave me for my initial nem nuong attempt. Firstly, I decided to used deshelled prawns this time. My last attempt using prawns with shells intact didn’t deliver fantastic results. Even after processing them in my food processor and pounding in a mortar and pestle, there was still bits of shell in the finished meatballs (not sure if the problem was my food processor or perhaps the curing powder also helps break down the shell?). Further, after realising my last attempt didn’t yield sweet enough meatballs, and seeing the amount of sugar in the packet of curing mix, I decided to up the amount of sugar in my meatball mix too, using up to 5 tablespoons in a kilogram of meatball mix. It may seem like quite a bit of sugar to use, but there is a whole kilogram of meat to marinade. I started by using about 3 tablespoons in the mix and added more as needed. The sugar is there to help bring out and enhance the sweet prawn flesh, but you don’t actually want to taste it in the finished product.

The result? Well obviously this departs even further from my friend’s sister’s sweet and bouncy nem nuong, but believe me when I say that this was a resounding success in its own right and I can even boast that only natural ingredients were used! No cheating :). And a lot tastier than my last attempt! These meatballs are juicy, flavoursome and had just the right amount of sugar to bring out the natural sweetness of the prawns without tasting sugary. I made 2kgs worth of these nem nuong for my family’s Christmas party, and these were not only the quickest to disappear, but clearly the standout dish of the day. The whole family was asking for more. I think it’s now become a requirement for me to make these for any family bbqs!


RECIPE – Vietnamese meatballs aka nem nuong (makes 1kg mix)


  • 500g raw headless and deshelled prawns
  • 500g pork mince
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon very finely minced lemongrass* (see note below)
  • up to 5 tablespoons sugar (start with 3 tablespoons first and adjust to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • oil for cooking


  1. In a food processor, process headless and shelled prawns until it resembles a thick paste.prawnpaste
  2. Remove prawn paste from processor and place into a large mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon, vigorously mix the prawn paste until you feel it becoming sticky and more elastic (ie. the paste will develop more resistance as you are mixing). You could also achieve this by pounding the prawn paste in your mortar and pestle; this is just a slightly easier way of doing it. This stickiness is what will give the prawn meat its ‘bouncy’ texture.
  3. Mix in all other remaining ingredients, starting with only 3 tablespoons of sugar.IMG_5774
  4. To check seasoning, place a small amount of the mixture in a bowl and microwave in 10 second bursts until cooked.
  5. Taste cooked sample and adjust seasoning/add sugar as required. Cover and refrigerate overnight to let flavours develop.
  6. To cook, roll a tablespoon of mixture into a ball and place on a lightly oiled grill on medium to high heat. It will take a few minutes to cook through. This is quite a sticky mixture so if you want to skewer it, it is easier to do this after they’ve been cooked first.

As I said last time, nem nuong can be served a number of ways. At Christmas, I served these skewered on a platter full of other bbq meats and with a selection of side salads. For this post, I replicated how it was served in my previous nem nuong write up; with banh hoi and greens, Vietnamese mint and chilli soy. Happy munching.


* Usually I would say that fresh is best, but I don’t think it applies in this case. When making these meatballs, I prefer using the frozen pre-minced lemongrass (this can be found in the frozen section of Asian grocers). Reason being that I can never mince my lemongrass as finely as the packaged ones. Even when I mince first by hand (very tiring as lemongrass is very woody in nature) and then put it through the food processor, it has never turned out as finely chopped as it does in the packets. If you have better luck than me and choose to use fresh lemongrass instead, you can probably get away with just using half the amount I used in the recipe above.