It would be a great crime to forgo a salad in summer. Especially when it’s hot, too hot that you don’t want to eat anything that is fatty, buttery or starchy. You crave a fresh, crunchy, herbal bowl of food and that’s where a salad comes in to save the day (and by the day I mean you precisely).
Vietnamese salads are meant to be served as an entrée, not as a whole meal dish. You’ll meet these salads when you explore street food in Vietnam (have you ever heard of seafood salads? We have a plenty), also when you attend celebrations such as weddings or memorial days. There will always be a salad there amid the feast because Vietnamese believe that a sweet and sour dish is great to pave the way for main dishes to come. If you attend Vietnamese celebrations you will understand why. The dishes in and of themselves aren’t always heavy BUT there are so many of them that they will end up being a storm in your stomach, not to mention the side dishes and desserts. In far Southern Vietnam, mostly in countryside, the whole village can come to a wedding and eat for 3 days straight. Didn’t I say it’s a feast? So during those occasions, salads are a great choice: fresh, light, sweet and sour, easy to eat and smell great too. Of course this is only occasionally, you’ll survive the cooking storm, we did.
By now I need to clarify what Vietnamese salads are.
I was talking to Blessia the other day and she called the Vietnamese rice vermicelli dish a salad. I was surprised. I googled it and in fact many people call dishes where we mix vermicelli and herbs and sauce salads. Ask Vietnamese and you will discover they won’t call these salads at all. I think the difference comes from languages and translation. It seems everything mixed will be called salad on Western term, so the name salad comes from a way of eating. On the other hand, in Vietnamese a salad means one special kind of dish: vegetables/herbs + meat + sweet and sour dressing. We call it “goi” in Southern language and “nom” in Northern one. There is no vermicelli or rice in “goi”.
There are dozens kinds of “goi” made from different vegetables, sometimes fruits like mango or pomelos, different meat like chicken, pork, beef, shrimp/seafood, herbs and 9 times out of 10 sweet and sour fish sauce (the one time exception is a vegan “goi” in which they forgo meat and create an imitation of fish sauce). The fish sauce to make Vietnamese salads is not like the dipping fish sauce that I presented here. Salad’s fish sauce must be thicker in order to not make the vegetables become a soggy mess. It’s the antagonist of any “goi” story, the chorister for our salad concert. I have never come across anyone who doesn’t like Vietnamese salads. In fact I made a salad for the linguistic meet-up in Bordeaux and everyone loved it. For that event I made chicken cabbage salad but let’s change the recipe this time with pork and shrimp and carrot salad. You will need:
- 7 shrimps
- 100gr pork (the shoulder part)
- 2 medium carrots, cut or grate into stripes
- 1 small onion, cut into thin slices
- 2 celery stems, sliced diagonally (normally we use Vietnamese mint and coriander for garnish but I chose celery over them for this dish)
- A handful of roasted peanuts, crushed
For the dressing:
- Fish sauce
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 red chili pepper, deseeded and minced (I’d say this is optional but a Vietnamese fish sauce is never complete without red chili so you can try adding red chili to this sauce and see if you can stand the heat. Because we remove the seeds of the chili, the fish sauce won’t be too hot anyway)
- Salt, pepper, sugar
I always prepare the onion first. I like to mix the onion before making salads because I don’t like its raw smell. Although it seems extra work, mixing the onion before the salad also elevates the sweet and sour taste of our dish. You’re not obliged to prepare the onion beforehand and can just cut it and set aside like the celery but I promise you this is worth the time and effort.
To mix the onion: Mix salt and sugar and lemon juice in a ratio of 1:3:2 and a dash of grounded pepper (black or white). Mix the onion slices in this mixture and let’s wait for 20 minutes at least. The onion will give up its raw smell along with water while still preserve its crunchiness.
Now for the shrimps: Steam them, remove the shells and black lines and set aside.
Boil the pork chunk with salt and submerge it in cold water to prevent it from darkening. After 10 minutes, take out the pork chunk and slice it thinly, set aside.
You can prepare the carrot and chop celery while waiting for the pork to be cooked and cooled. After cutting the carrot into stripes, put them into a bowl and sprinkle with salt, mix well and set aside. This step is to remove water from the carrot and reduce water in the salad. Remember to turn the onion and carrot from time to time for them to be coated evenly. After 10 minutes, the carrot is ready for use.
And now for the dressing:
The perfect ratio of sugar, fish sauce and lemon juice for salad dressing, to my taste that is, is 2:1:3/4. In a sauce pan pour in sugar and enough water to cover it. Then add several drops of lemon juice to prevent the sugar from being crystallized. Put the pan on medium heat and stir constantly to prevent the sugar from burning at the bottom of the pan. When the mixture starts to boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and keep stirring. When the sugar dissolves completely, take the pan off the heat. Pour this mixture in a bowl and let it cool down a bit. Next start adding in fish sauce, minced garlic, minced red chili and lemon juice in that order.
15 minutes before serving you can begin to mix the salad. First take the carrot and squeeze the water out. Do the same for the onion too. Put them in a big bowl intended for the mixing step. Add the pork and shrimps that we prepared earlier, also chopped celery (keep a bit of it for garnish). Pour in the fish sauce mixture and mix everything by hand: this is when you should give them a loving good massage. When everything is combined with the dressing put in the crushed roasted peanuts and toss them with the salad. Yup, there are lots of tossing and mixing for this dish.
Serve the salad fresh, garnish with chopped and whole celery leaves and crushed peanuts. The salad is great to eat with prawn chips/crackers. Bon appétit!
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!