Asian improvisations on the grill: “Vietnamese” chops, sesame zucchini

by Terry B on September 16, 2009

A marinade seasoned with turmeric, ginger, garlic, Chinese five-spice powder and other spices gives Turmeric/Ginger Grilled Pork Chops big flavor with very little heat; Grilled Sesame Zucchini is delicious, smoky and impressive—and it’s easy to make. Recipes below.


At times like this, I wish Blue Kitchen had a scratch and sniff mode. When I’d whisked together the ingredients for the marinade for the chops, it was so wonderfully aromatic that I wanted Marion to get a whiff of it before I added the meat and popped it in the fridge. I carried it to the study at the opposite end of the apartment where Marion was. She told me the big fragrance had preceded me.

The marinade is actually based on one used for a five-spice chicken dish in Mai Pham’s Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. Pham is chef/owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, California. Here’s how she describes the dish’s olfactory pleasures: “The best five-spice chicken I have had in mai-pham-vietnamese-table-smVietnam was made by a street food vendor in the port town of Hoi An in the central region. The vendor used a spice mix of freshly toasted star anise and turmeric. When she grilled the chicken, the whole neighborhood was perfumed with the most enticing fragrance.” Other seasonings adding their big personalities to the marinade include fresh ginger and garlic—plenty of each—and Chinese five-spice powder.

You may have noticed the quotes around Vietnamese in the headline. It’s not that Pham’s marinade isn’t authentically Vietnamese; she was born in Vietnam and left there just days before the fall of Saigon in 1975. And the recipes in the book come from a trip she made home 20 years later to connect with her roots. It’s more the way certain ingredients freely cross borders, especially in Asia. Like the Chinese five-spice powder, for instance. And the fact that Pham serves her chicken dish with a soy-lime dipping sauce for which she specifies that Chinese-style soy sauce is preferred.

Turmeric is another border-crossing ingredient in the marinade. This earthy/gingery/mustardy, intensely yellow-orange spice originated in Asia, but has spread to the Caribbean and to India, where it is almost always part of any curry. And it’s even a key ingredient in all-American yellow mustard.

The simple Grilled Sesame Zucchini that I served on the side is even less nation-specific, really an Asian-inspired dish that I improvised while the chops were marinating. In honor of the pan-Asian [or in the case of the zucchini, ersatz-Asian] origins of the meal, I plated it on vintage Blue Willow china. This venerable pattern was first imported to England from China, but beginning in the second half of the 18th century, was mostly produced by British pottery manufacturers. Many of them still make it today.

Turmeric/Ginger Grilled Pork Chops
Serves 4

3 tablespoons minced ginger
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons canola oil [or vegetable oil]
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper [optional]
4 thick bone-in pork chops, about 8 ounces each
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan for 3 minutes

Combine ginger, garlic, oil, soy sauce, sugar, turmeric, five-spice powder, salt and cayenne pepper in a bowl. Pat pork chops dry with paper towel and place in 9×13-inch glass baking dish. Spoon marinade over chops and turn several times to coat them evenly. Cover dish with plastic wrap and marinate chops in the refrigerator for 3-1/2 to 4 hours or more.

Prepare a charcoal grill or gas grill for indirect grilling [with the coals or heat on one side of the grill]. Thirty minutes before the grill is ready, grind the toasted star anisestar-anise2 to a powder in a spice grinder or with mortar and pestle. Add powder to the marinating chops, turning to coat meat evenly and set aside, allowing chops to come to room temperature.

Lightly oil the grill and place chops so they are not directly over the coals or heat source. Cover the grill and cook for about 10 minutes. Turn chops, cover grill and cook on second side for another 8 to 10 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer reads about 140ºF when inserted into the thickest part of the chop [be careful to avoid the bone, which heats up faster and will give you a false reading]. Move chops over the coals and cook uncovered for about 2 minutes per side to brown slightly. Watch the grill carefully at this point; even though much of the fat of the chops will have been rendered during the indirect grilling, you may still get a flare-up or two. Move chops away from any flames as they finish. The extra time over the coals will bring the internal temperature of the meat up to at least 145ºF, what most cooks consider safe these days. Don’t overcook.

Transfer chops to platter, tent with foil and let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Grilled Sesame Zucchini
Serves 4

You can grill this dish ahead and serve room temperature or grill at the last minute to serve hot.

2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1-1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
1-1/2 tablespoons canola oil [or vegetable oil]
4 medium-sized zucchini
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Toast sesame seeds in a dry nonstick skillet over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently or shaking the skillet to keep them from burning. You’ll know they’re done when they begin to color slightly and one or two of them “pop.” You should also smell a lovely sesame fragrance. Transfer to a small bowl to cool and set aside.

Combine sesame oil and canola oil in a large bowl. Rinse the zucchini, pat dry with a paper towel and slice them on the diagonal into 1/3 to 1/2-inch thick slices. Using a wooden spoon, gently toss zucchini slices with oil mixture to coat. Season with salt and pepper and toss some more.

Grill the zucchini. Working quickly with tongs, arrange zucchini slices directly over coals, shaking off oil as you remove them from the bowl to minimize flare-ups. Grill for just about 2 minutes per side. Essentially, once you get them all on the grill, start turning the ones you placed there first. And after you’ve turned all of them, you can start transferring them to a large, shallow bowl.

Just before serving, sprinkle the zucchini with the toasted sesame seeds and toss lightly. Doing this at the last minute helps the sesame seeds retain their nutty crunchiness.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim, Ordinary Recipes Made Gourmet September 16, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Terry did you miss me? I’ve been under the weather a bit so haven’t been around as much as usual – but I’m back now! And the first place I wanted to visit was Blue Kitchen! I sure wish I had been in the room with Marion, the aroma may have knocked me into next week! LOL!!!!!! The grilled Sesame Zucchini is something I’d like to try out and my best friend Kassandra who’s a vegetarian would love that too! Thanks for sharing buddy!

Laura September 16, 2009 at 3:55 pm

I think Vietnamese/Thai food is just about my favorite cuisine. Everything just seems to be so much brighter and more vivid, as I imagine your pork chops are! I had a bad experience with Five Spice powder a while ago so have shied away from it, but I imagine that used well it could be fabulously aromatic. You don’t have a recipe for your own blend by any chance do you?

Terry B September 16, 2009 at 4:08 pm

Hi, Kim! Hope you’re feeling better. You know, it wasn’t until I read that turmeric is used in just about all curry recipes that I fully understood why the marinade was so fragrant.

Laura—We use lots of Chinese five-spice powder in our kitchen. It’s just so versatile and adds a nice base of flavor to so many recipes. Marion even uses it in her amazing gingerbread. But we just generally buy it, either in Chinatown or at the Spice House in Chicago, or at Soulard Farmers Market when we’re visiting St. Louis. Do give it a second chance—you really can do a lot with it.

Alta September 16, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Oh man, I could so dig into these pork chops and zucchini. Love Vietnamese flavors, and the variations on them in this recipe sound delightful. Bookmarking for sure!

Jean September 17, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Creating food should be for so much more than just the sense of taste. It should be a feast for all the senses. Bravo on your post. It’s on my list of “To-Make Meals”. Thanks,

altadenahiker September 17, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Meat and I, me and meat, are not on speaking terms. More my fault than meat’s. I have no idea why, but I’m overcooking everything these days, and it gives shoe leather a bad name. But when meat and I make up, I’ll try this. For now, think I’ll go to the bluffs, ok?

Terry B September 18, 2009 at 3:27 am

Alta—Thanks! We used to get some of the best Vietnamese food in St. Louis, so we rarely even try here in Chicago. But now I want to explore making more of it.

Jean—In fact, that’s why food doesn’t taste as good when you have a head cold; our sense of smell delivers much of food’s “taste” for us. Hope you like it when you try it.

altadenahiker—And pork these days doesn’t need to be cooked to death; it can even be a little pinkish inside. Regarding the bluffs, you be home before the street lights come on, you hear? [Sorry, everyone—I hate inside jokes too.]

Helmut September 19, 2009 at 9:44 am

This dish just looks so tasty. And the plate is a treasure. What a splendid Photo!

susan from food blogga September 22, 2009 at 1:35 am

ha! A scratch and sniff mode. Give it time. I’m sure Apple will come out with one soon enough. That zucchini is so simple yet sublime.

ravenouscouple October 2, 2009 at 4:51 am

Great recipe and comments on the uses of spices in cultural crossings. Turmeric is also one of the key ingredients in Cha Ca Thanh Long, a famous sizzling fish dish flavored with turmeric with dill.

Terry B October 2, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Susan—It’s probably already an iPhone app, in fact.

Thanks, ravenouscouple! And Oh. My. God. Your Vietnamese Turmeric Fish with Dill… now that totally deserves a scratch and sniff mode. I have bookmarked your blog. I will be back.

หมูปิ้งขายส่ง October 22, 2015 at 10:20 pm

An intriguing discussion is worth comment.
I think that you should publish more about this subject, it might not be a taboo subject but
typically people don’t speak about these subjects. To the next!
All the best!!

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